Brexit looms for ever-weaker union

Brexit looms for ever-weaker union

Boris Johnson, left, is the face of the Brexit campaign. Source: Flickr

UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s gamble over EU membership is looking increasingly risky and the June 23 referendum is a step into the dark for the UK and the rest of Europe.

While economists argue about the tangled financial future for a post-exit UK and constitutional and legal experts wrangle about the ramifications for Britain’s future trade policy, the public seems to be reduced to a pitifully simplistic debate about migration and symbolism. The electorate appears just as ready to make a decision based on their last Spanish holiday or how they feel about the politicians on either side of the debate as any attempt to understand the arguments.

The perils of handing such momentous decisions to the masses might just be dawning on Cameron as the EU itself begins to mull a future without its second-largest economy and most significant military power.

Riven with divides and punch-drunk from the eurozone and migrant crises, a British departure might be a hammer blow to the ever weaker union. There is no precedent for an economy as big as Britain leaving a trade bloc and opinions are divided on how an exit would affect trade.

The UK’s largest trade partner is the European single market, the world’s biggest trade area. The “Bremain” campaigners argue a Britain outside the EU would be in a feeble negotiating position when forging trade agreements the bloc.

Official figures estimate 12.6 per cent of UK economic output is linked to exports to the EU’s other members, for whom only 3.1 per cent of output is linked to exports to Britain.

Pascal Lamy, a former head of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), said a Brexit would probably require London to build tariffs to protect its economy from EU competition. “Britain would have to say, ‘Sorry, consumers, but you have to pay more’. It’s just crazy,” said the former EU trade commissioner.

Bremain campaigners argue that the UK would have to allow EU citizens to work within its borders and contribute to EU budgets: two principal pledges from the Brexit campaign. UK banks might also face barriers to doing business across the English Channel, they warn. “Brexit” campaigners say EU members would not want to restrict their access to the world’s fifth-biggest economy. They claim the UK bought €367 billion in 2014 in goods from the EU compared with the €292 billion that the rest of the EU buys from the UK.

“Commercial imperatives are very powerful, much more powerful than politicians,” said William Dartmouth, deputy chairman of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). WTO-compliant tariffs between Britain and the EU would be low enough not to impede business, Dartmouth claimed.

The results of a poll about the referendum by a regional newspaper may strike fear into Cameron.

Some 80 per cent of the readers of Wolverhampton’s Express & Star said they would vote for Brexit. The bulk of the 7,979 readers who took part in the self-selecting survey said immigration was the biggest issue facing the UK. They also said the Brexit campaign maverick Conservative Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, was the politician most likely to influence voters’ decisions. When asked who would be most likely to swing their opinion, 66 per cent said Johnson; 22 per cent picked Cameron and only 12 per cent chose left-wing opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

A crushing 82 per cent said they thought Cameron had not negotiated a good deal for Britain in recent talks in Brussels. And around 86 per cent said the EU interfered too much in the UK with 80 per cent saying they thought trade would improve if Britain left the EU.

It does seem the Bremain campaigners, as Tony Blair recently argued, seem to lack the passion and commitment of those calling for a leave vote.

A headline of dubious accuracy in the right-wing Sun newspaper, “Queen backs Brexit”, may yet have a deep impact on swinging voters’ minds. It is quite possibly fictional as it is based on the weakest form of hearsay from the ever-taciturn monarch and was instantly denied by Buckingham Palace but it might still give the invaluable royal seal of approval to the Brexit campaign. Misleading Sun headlines have been influential in the past when they capture the public mood.

Ahead of the 1979 election, the Sun ran the headline, “Crisis? What crisis?” in reference to Labour prime minister Jim Callaghan, despite the fact he had said no such thing. But it still helped Margaret Thatcher beat him at the polls.

Rather depressingly, it seems the facts are unlikely to get in the way in the referendum debate.

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