thatc schmidt

Daily Mail, (Ireland) 23 June 2016

Today Britain will make one of the most momentous decisions it has made since the Second World War, when Winston Churchill committed his island nation to continue the fight against the Nazi Germans who sought to dominate Europe. This time it will be the people and not a leader who decides, but it is no exaggeration to say that the consequences will be equally momentous.

Ironically, the result of Churchill’s commitment, bravely supported by the British people, was an ultimate victory over the evil Nazis and the eventual creation of a European Community and a peace that has prevailed on the continent for over fifty years.

Of course, those today seeking a Brexit would argue that the European Community is not what it was in the post-war decades and has developed into a ever centralizing Euro Super state that is unwieldly and undemocratic and is simply not working either financially or in the processing of refugees and migrants. They argue that the sovereignty that the British fought so hard to protect in World War Two has been eroded and ceded to a Brussels bureaucracy and they want this power back.

But now however, they are getting the chance to simply leave the EU altogether, not just repatriate some legislative powers in the way Thatcher and other British leaders have tried to do in recent years. So how has it come to this?

Quite simply, when the British Prime Minister David Cameron promised a full referendum on EU membership, he wove a rod for his own back. He made the offer reluctantly but also to counter the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) which is explicitly anti-EU and anti-immigration.

Foolishly, he wanted to show that he too was a macho Eurosceptic, but in fact he was feeding UKIP’s demands and letting them set the agenda. But he also had to appease his Tory backbenchers who have long been very Eurosceptic.

Once the Conservatives won an overall majority in 2015, and thus could dispense with their Europhile partners, the Liberal Democrats, the die was cast. Tory backbenchers demanded a referendum pronto and licked their lips at the prospect of a robust campaign.

And it has been more robust. The campaign has polarized British politics, split the Conservative party and unleashed some ugly xenophobic, racist and Islamophic rhetoric. The shocking killing of Labour MP Jo Cox MP, by an extreme right activist, albeit a mentally disturbed one, has forced all sides to reflect on the toxicity of the debate and pull back somewhat.

But perhaps more shockingly has been the persistence of others in equivocating over Jo Wood’s death and accusing their opponents of ‘profiting’ from her death. The genie of social media, and the passions of this debate, cannot be easily be put back in the bottle.

And this very toxicity may well have damaged the Brexit campaign and caused the larger British public to consider more carefully the decision they make today, and the world they are about to embrace. The result is still in the balance but polling show that support has drifted back to the Remain side.

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In the last week, for example, UKIP leader Nigel Farage has stood over a ‘Breaking Point’ poster which shows Syrian war refugees at the Slovakian border as if they were coming into the UK. They even photoshopped out a white face to make the image more ‘effective’.

British voters may well be thinking ‘is this the sort of thinking, and the sort of UK, that I want to be a part? Do we really want to retreat behind the white cliffs of Dover with Nigel Farage, waving a small Union Jack, plausible as he is?

And what kind of ‘United Kingdom’ would it be, for voters know that an almost certain consequence of Brexit would be the break-up of the UK itself. Certainly, the Scots would immediately press for another referendum on independence and Sinn Fein would press for a Border poll in Northern Ireland, where support for Brexit runs along predictable sectarian/tribal lines.

Why should Sinn Fein, and northern nationalists, accept an Ireland that was split in terms of EU membership? And this is even without getting into the hassle and symbolism of re-imposed border and customs controls.

But there is also the larger picture – of Britain’s place in the world. For the reality is that a Brexit would take the UK away from the top table of Europe, and of the world, and send it into isolation.

This is something Brexiteers do not want to talk about, and with good reason, for their philosophy is supposed to be all about Britain’s standing and influence – just as it shouldn’t be about breaking up the United Kingdom! The Outers understandably prefer to focus on migration and the legal powers surrendered to Brussels.

But is also strange that David Cameron and the Remain side did not make more of this issue, but they seem to lack this passion and ‘big picture’ vision. The Labour party is conflicted and Cameron is possibly conflicted too. The one politician who could make this ‘UK in the world’ case, is Boris Johnston but he is on the other side: insincerely so, say many, which adds to the bitterness of the campaign. Continuing an Etonian and Bullingdon Club rivalry, Boris wants Cameron’s job and he will throw over certain long-held principles to get it!

In recent years, the mission of British patriots and conservatives right has been about improving the world, and confronting foes like ISIS, or Russia, just as it was decades ago in confronting Communism, and before that Nazism. Britain’s role should surely be at the centre of Europe, and of world politics, as it was for Thatcher, and for Churchill during World War Two and the Cold War. And, problematic as it may be, the only way for the UK to do that now is via the EU.

The US does not want a Brexit, for example, as it wants a united Europe to partner with in dealing with world issues. The so-called Special Relationship between the UK and US is long finished. Blair revived it by supporting the Iraq invasion but the UK got little credit for this.

Yes, the UK still has a conspicuous role to play on its own, but it remains unpopular as a former imperial power and is now seen as increasingly irrelevant, whereas the EU, even if flawed, has become a growing force as a bloc or association, at least politically – and a calming one. Brexiteers who lament the co-ordination of foreign policy under the EU’s should reflect on what happened when the UK decided to go it alone, and support the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, with now disastrous consequences.

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Most damningly, there was a third adventure, in Libya- picture above – where the UK (and France) ignoring its EU partners and overthrowing Gaddafi to create a Jihadi playground. A chaotic Libya is now the fulcrum for the North African refugee crisis which the Brexiteers blame on – Brussels!

Of course, the problem with the EU is its move beyond an association into a union of ever-increasing integration and centralization. This has accelerated the ambitions of the European Project but also the growth of Euroscepticism in the UK, and elsewhere. The ‘one size fits all’ Euro currency compounded the problems, as did Angel Merkel’s rash invitation to masses of migrants without consulting her EU partners. This suits the Germans, as does the Euro, but it doesn’t suit the rest of us.

We in Ireland know about this unfairness. We took a hit for the European banking system and were prevented from burning the bondholders. The Germans, and the US, said we couldn’t. However, we did get a bail-out from the EU, when we messed up economically, and even though we rejected two EU treaties, we went back and voted for them on a re-run. We know that it is a lonely and pitiless world out there, without a larger club, even one with preferably looser rules.

The Germans run the EU because the French are weak, and the British do not want to be a fully active member. But if they did, and made the full leap into the driving seat, the UK could dominate and run the EU, with the Germans, and many of us would have no problem with that. It would reflect the reality of the great powers which have dominated and influenced Europe for centuries.

However, this would require a seismic shift in British thinking and it will not happen. Although, it is founded on valid reservations about the EU’s structures, and direction, the reality is that much of Brexit sentiment is fuelled by imperial nostalgia, and English nationalism. It is also fed by the fear about immigration and Islamic culture that is rife throughout the US and Europe and elsewhere.

In the end, today’s vote will ultimately be about economics. It usually is these days, as it was in our own election and the last British general election. And here the case is overwhelming against Brexit, even if the economists have failed to make it. Since joining the EU in 1973, the UK’s growth of national income per head has been the fastest in the OECD having been the slowest between 1950 and 1973. The EU creates trade and open markets and far from the UK being burdened by EU red tape; its most damaging regulations are home grown.

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But beyond the economics, there is Britain’s central role in the world. Voters must ask themselves if an understandable frustration with the bureaucracy and accountability of Brussels is really worth taking the UK out of the world’s biggest economic and political bloc, at a time when the world is riven with the dangerous threats of Islamic terrorism, a belligerent Russia and an unpredictable China. And a depleted and divided US.

Britain was at the centre of Europe when Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, and saved Europe from French domination, just as it saved us from German domination in the First World War and in the Second World War, when it helped defeat the Nazis and then confront a new threat with the Soviets. Voters must decide if centuries of British leadership in Europe, and in the world, will now come to an end if the UK votes out of the EU, and if that is a risk worth taking. Today they will get their chance.