Let’s suppose that on the 24th of June, the country wakes up to an EU referendum victory for Remain.
If this does occur, it’s likely to be a fairly narrow one. Nevertheless many people, myself included, would breathe a hefty sigh of relief. The speed with which the Leave campaign has veered from some convincing arguments on sovereignty and parliamentary democracy to an all-too-predictable xenophobia-fest has been both disconcerting and saddening to watch. Also, while dire warnings of Brexit causing economic doom surely have some hyperbole to them, it would still introduce a variety of unknowns, and the possibility of a recession is not to be sniffed at.
However, Remainers’ collective exhalation should be tentative, as the arguments that are convincing half the electorate to back Brexit will not lose their potency overnight. Those of us who have plumped for In must work to address these concerns, or our relief may prove short-lived.
Uneasiness about supposed loss of sovereignty stretches across the political spectrum. Nationalists on the right wheel out the (discredited, but still oft-repeated) mantra about overreaching EU laws, while Bennites reference their namesake’s Oxford Union speech to express their own reservations. While many claims about how the EU functions as a democracy are surely exaggerated (commisioners are not, for example, “unelected”), there is a debate to be had about how we can make it more accountable, more transparent, and less centralized.
Monetary union in the absence of fiscal union has failed many European states, and the Eurozone surely cannot function in this state of limbo for much longer. But this leaves the EU between a rock and a hard place. Dissolving the single currency would introduce enormous uncertainty at a time when the world economy is looking anything but stable. However, pushing for further centralisation in the face of a rise in nationalist sentiment could further inflame tensions. While it is easy to ascribe the far-right’s surge purely to immigration concerns and the migrant crisis, we should not underestimate the extent to which the desire for self-determination fuels such movements. The collapse of Austria-Hungary serves as an important lesson in the dangers of ignoring calls for more localised power within a multi-national body. Whichever path is taken, we as a country cannot sit back and watch. While we are not part of the Eurozone, its crises are our crises. The UK’s influence must surely be used to help defuse any heated situations.
Closer to home, the mistakes following the Scottish Referendum must not be repeated. Yes may have lost, but the SNP gained extraordinary traction in the general election. In the eyes of the public, promises made by the No campaign were not delivered. There is a real danger, if the British public do not feel their reservations about the EU have been listened to, of a huge boost in UKIP’s support. Such is the strength of feeling on the Leave side, and the breadth of their support, that UK politics may be redrawn along new axes. Neither left/right nor even authoritarian/libertarian, but europhile/eurosceptic. Labour is already haemorraging support to UKIP, and such a seismic shift could see the party out of power for a long, long time.
So what can be done to heal the divisions this referendum has brought to the fore? If we remain in the EU, it cannot simply be business as usual. The UK can no longer sit on the sidelines and sulk about Europe, but must follow the examples of Wellington and Churchill in becoming more involved. It’s on our heads, Remain and Leave alike, to put forward the UK’s vision for a different EU. One that works better not just for those who are dissatisfied this side of the Channel, but for disgruntled French people gravitating to Marine Le Pen, for the 2.2m members of the Austrian electorate who supported Norbert Hofer’s FPÖ, and for Hungarian voters turning to Jobbik. Otherwise, we may find ourselves remaining in a European Union with a very limited lifespan.