Since former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s speech at a Labour rally recently, much has been made of Ed Miliband’s decision to not give the British public an in/out referendum on the EU.
Whatever your opinion on the EU, one can’t deny the complexity of the implications of Britain’s hypothetical exit. Even experts can’t reliably say what would happen, as that primarily depends upon the reaction of the other member states. Whether they would choose to treat Britain as a pariah, or decide that their economic survival is too fragile to be destabilised by de facto sanctions on a significant trading partner.
Of course it wouldn’t be in any of the member states’ interests for Britain to leave and undoubtedly they will make their feelings known. Furthermore, if events align and the exit of Britain looks like a very real possibility, then it is highly likely that the member states will declare that there will be no renewed trade agreements, that Britain cannot both have its cake and eat it whilst the rest of Europe look on and “endure” the regulations that are imposed upon them by the EU.
If following the election, the UK have a government that wants to conduct an in/out referendum, the public will have to decide whether this rhetoric is a bluff or not and whether to call that bluff. But this isn’t poker. Britain’s economic future is not a chip in a game in which the results can be forgotten so easily and taken so lightly. The question must eventually be asked as to whether our already uncertain economy is something that we as primary stakeholders in this nation can afford to gamble.
In order to decide, we need to discuss what the possible consequences of leaving the EU would be. As mentioned previously it is difficult to tell, but the argument can certainly be made that it would herald the end of the EU itself. With one of the major players in the region leaving, it would unequivocally damage its credibility, whilst setting a precedent for other states to follow suit. With the far-right in Europe on the ascendancy, primarily as a result of the financial crisis in 2007/8, states such as France in which Marine Le Pen’s anti-EU Front National is gaining prominence could follow closely behind. A mass exodus would not be unforeseeable.
Profoundly, this would undo decades of effort sacrificed in order to achieve, against the odds, what exists today; a supranational union envied by the rest of the international community that has helped the region compete economically with growing powers such as China and India and with long-established powers such as the U.S. It is a platform for diplomacy and communication between states promoting cooperation in order to achieve common goals and objectives too large to be tackled by one state alone. The EU also offers a medium through which to combat growing corporate dictatorship that poses more of a threat to state sovereignty than the EU, offering solidarity between states by enforcing blanket regulations on corporations so that they may not hold individual states to ransom. It is clear in my view that the importance of the EU cannot be underestimated.
Is Miliband’s decision then, as Blair suggested, a demonstration of strong leadership? If we understand leadership as the quality of being able to make difficult, often unpopular decisions, then yes, I do believe that it was. It is, despite increasing pressure from the public and from right-wing parties to provide one, an admission of the fact that we don’t know what would happen if we were to leave, and that right now, we are not in a situation in which we can risk doing anything drastic. Whereas Cameron has transparently bent to the rhetoric of UKIP in order to appease voters.
In fact, the only reason we as a nation are having the debate on whether we want an in/out referendum is because of the rise of UKIP, and I’m not saying that praisingly. UKIP have succeeded in distracting the public’s focus from other issues and have depicted an exit from the EU as a silver bullet to all of Britain’s problems. We have to ask ourselves whether the EU is the biggest issue in our politics at the moment and, if not, why we are considering having a referendum on it and not other issues. If that is the case, then it cannot be argued that this debate is about democracy, otherwise we’d be arguing for a referendum on every issue. Obviously, whether the EU as an organization is as democratic as it could be is another question for another time.
This is not the same scale as having a referendum on a domestic policy, this is about our relationship with the international community, an impossibly complicated issue. And if we do have a referendum and we do choose to leave and things turn awry, it might not be as easy as merely re-entering and saying “Okay, we messed up. Can we come back please?” There will very likely be repercussions for our actions, repercussions that we can ill afford. Of course we need to participate in politics, have an informed debate, and hold our politicians accountable but I believe that it’s dangerous to have a referendum on such a huge decision, the implications of which we cannot fully comprehend as of yet.
Ultimately, the final question we must ask is; is the EU doing as much as harm at the moment as the potential benefit that would be achieved by leaving, and how likely is it of achieving that benefit if the UK did leave? The EU isn’t perfect, no one is disputing that, but it does provide several important services for our long-term future. With a world and an economy that is still uncertain, is now the time to add further uncertainty?
The purpose of this article has not been to scare-monger, or to discourage political participation, but to attempt to put issues, namely the EU, into context and allow readers to form an opinion on a subject that has unfortunately been turned into a political football, as have so many others.