Give Me a Crash Course in . . . Brexit

Despite polls showing that most Britons would actually prefer to stay in the EU, the British dislike the concept of ‘Brussels’, making the potential for an exit huge

The Queen announced that  a referendum will be held no later than December 31st, 2017, on  whether Britain – strictly, the UK – should exit the European Union. Photograph:  Alastair Grant/WPA Pool/Getty Images

The Queen announced that a referendum will be held no later than December 31st, 2017, on whether Britain – strictly, the UK – should exit the European Union. Photograph: Alastair Grant/WPA Pool/Getty Images

 

What did Queen Elizabeth announce this week? On behalf of the UK prime minister, David Cameron, the queen announced in parliament this week that a referendum will be held no later than December 31st, 2017, on “Brexit”, or whether Britain – strictly, the UK – should exit the European Union. The question to be put, barring any changes as the legislation goes through parliament, will be: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the EU?” The Conservatives had hoped that the question would be: “Do you think that the UK should be a member of the EU?”, but the electoral commission warned that some voters might think they were being asked to join the EU, not leave it.

Why did Cameron take off around Europe? This is part of the early choreography in the negotiations. The prime minister met his Dutch counterpart, Mark Rutte, to stress the need for the EU to become leaner and competitive, as that appeals to Dutch sensibilities. He also met the French president, François Hollande, because he must get Paris onside for, or at least neutral to, his demands. (The early signals are not good.) A Cameron visit to Warsaw was , among other things, an attempt to allay anger there about his plans to curb benefits that low-paid workers receive in the UK. The PM also met the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, because nothing happens without Berlin’s agreement. Germany desperately wants the British to stay onboard. If the UK quits, the balance within the EU – particularly when it comes to qualified-majority voting – will swing in the direction of Paris and the southern states.

Do Britons really want to quit Europe? Does David Cameron? A succession of polls over the past five years have tended to show – surprisingly, if one compares the figures to the prevailing narrative in British public debate – that support to stay in the EU has increased, not fallen. But there is a latent dislike of “Brussels”, even if actual knowledge of the EU is low, so the potential for a vote in favour of exit is huge. Cameron does not want to quit, but he has never shown much sign that he would be prepared to risk his leadership to persuade British voters to say Yes.

What does it mean for Ireland if Britain votes to leave? Problems, and lots of them – as well as one major plus: if there is a Brexit, Ireland will become the only English native-speaking country in the EU, so becoming more attractive to foreign direct investors from outside the EU. Still, the best outcome for Ireland would be for the United Kingdom to stay in the European Union. Life with Northern Ireland would become more awkward if the Border turned into one between an EU and a non-EU state. Sure, all sorts of things could be done to ease the difficulties, but difficulties there would be. Culturally, politically and economically, Ireland has more in common with the United Kingdom than not (bar agriculture). Meanwhile, trade with the UK after a Brexit would become complicated. Nobody can be sure by how much.

Would the UK enjoy the same terms and conditions as nonmembers, but for a fee? More likely it would be restricted in all sorts of ways. Often, so-called nontariff barriers – paperwork to you and me – would be the biggest hindrance for companies trying to trade across the Border, or the Irish Sea.

And how much discussion of the subject will we have to endure in the meantime? Endless amounts. Even worse, much of what will be available through the British media will be partisan – mostly, but not entirely, on the Eurosceptic side. So approach with caution.