Magazine | June 13, 2016, Issue

Exit Britain?

Britons are considering whether to assert their sovereignty in leaving the EU

For at least a quarter of a century, there was no greater bore in British politics than the Eurobore, who warned against Britain’s loss of sovereignty to Brussels. From the moment the House of Commons narrowly passed the Maastricht Treaty in the early 1990s, turning the European Economic Community into the European Union, the species could be sighted around Westminster. But its natural habitat became sparsely populated meetings of the already converted. Occasionally an overreach by Brussels would find the Eurobore staring into the bright lights of the nation’s broadcast media, there to answer a few hostile questions while demonstrating an unappetizing combination of monomania and over-fondness for detail. But for at least a generation, people said to be “banging on about Europe” suffered from the political equivalent of halitosis.

And then things began to change. Of course, nobody wanted to credit the fact, but over the course of recent years the wilderness dwellers began to assume the mantle of prophets. The backbenchers in Westminster and the MEP (Members of the European Parliament) flotsam in Brussels who had kept a flame of British independence alive became politically palatable again. Their knowledge of the minutiae of EU laws and regulations proved useful. Soon bigger political beasts found the courage once again to join this renegade band. Today, with a vote on Britain’s remaining in or leaving the EU taking place on June 23, Britain’s Euroskeptics are not just back in the mainstream but at the helm of the most important decision facing the country in decades. Indeed, they may soon be running the country. With the polls currently showing “Remain” and “Leave” tied, an entire political establishment is now angrily trying to work out why Leave is doing so well. Why has wheeling out every other expert and authority in the land not browbeat the British people into overwhelmingly voting Remain? Why, indeed, does it seem to be pushing them the other way? Sad to say, the explanation is the facts — and two very large facts in particular, both of which have long been visible from Britain, even if not from Brussels.

The first is the legacy of the endless euro-zone crises. For years, British Euroskeptics argued that currency union, or the euro, could not possibly work unless the countries that participated in it gave up all remaining sovereignty. How, they asked, could Greece and Germany share a currency if they did not share fiscal habits and constraints? How the Europhiles scoffed at this! From different political sides, the former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine and the über-Blairite Peter Mandelson pooh-poohed all such complaints. Indeed, these grandees insisted that Britain would regret not joining the euro zone. Such men may still pretend to sail on as though nothing ever ruffled this core argument, but for seven years the nightly news has torn it to shreds.

The euro-zone crises that have battered the Continent since 2009 vindicated every British Euroskeptic fear. As one southern European country after another found itself unable to refinance its debts, the euro zone became a raft of the Medusa. In an effort to impose fiscal restraint on the southern European countries, northern European countries, especially Germany, not only imposed further financial rules on their neighbors but ousted their elected leaders, imposing bureaucrats to run things on Brussels’s behalf. Even now, youth unemployment in these countries sits between 25 and 50 percent, blighting an entire generation.

As events in Greece keep showing, these southern countries retain the ability to crash the entire continent at any moment. After lying their way into the euro zone (they cooked their books to mask the weakness of their financial state) and then refusing to impose sufficient austerity while inside it, the Greeks unwittingly demonstrated what the Euroskeptics had long warned about. In any ordinary financial arrangement, a country such as Greece should have been thrown out of the union and allowed to return to its own currency, devalue, and then climb its way out of recession in the usual manner. The EU’s refusal to allow Greece to do this was just one reminder that the euro project — like everything else the EU does — was never about economics so much as it was about politics. The economics could not be allowed to fail, because the political project could not be allowed to fail. A Greek exit from the euro zone risked pushing other countries to exit. So despite its failure, the euro zone stays together even now, with the effects felt even outside it. The EU today, as IMF figures show, remains the only region of the world to be consistently experiencing zero economic growth.

But it was the security disaster added to this economic disaster that helped bring the Euroskeptic case back. The questions of sovereignty and accountability seemed arcane for a time. But the EU’s disastrous handling of what is now known as the great migration crisis brought such matters to the political fore. Last year the European Commission and German chancellor Angela Merkel effectively opened the doors of Europe to the entire Third World. A migrant flow had persisted across the Mediterranean for years, but it now became a flood. By the German government’s own private figures, in 2015 alone around 1.5 million migrants, in addition to those visiting workers who had already been expected, entered Germany. That is around 2 percent of the German population. Similar numbers entered Sweden and other countries. Experts expect a similar flow this year, and the summer rush has already begun. In anticipation, Merkel arranged billions of dollars in bribes from the EU to the Turkish government to stem the flow through Turkish territory. Along with the European Commission, she also agreed that, to keep out several million refugees this year, the EU would award visa-free travel inside the EU to Turkish citizens, who number 75 million.

Meanwhile, the Schengen arrangement — a central pillar of EU progress, which allows citizens of EU countries to enjoy borderless travel in Europe — began to break down. After hundreds of thousands of undocumented people walked across the territory of Hungary and other countries, and even more so after the terrorist attacks in Paris and Belgium this past year, Europe’s borders have begun to go back up. Now even Frans Timmermans, vice president of the European Commission, admits what everybody with eyes could tell: that most of the people — his figure is 60 percent — who arrived last year came from countries where there is no conflict. They are not refugees but economic migrants with no right to claim asylum. They have no more reason to be in Europe than does any other non-European in the world. What is one to do with an entity able to make such historic missteps and so unable to correct them?

The EU might have dodged the logical conclusion of one of these mighty blows, but not both. For these are not quibbles over EU overregulation of the size of cucumbers or the shape of bananas. They are blows to the foundation, vision, and purpose of the EU itself. The principle of “ever closer union” was enshrined in every major treaty of the EU and its predecessor organization, from the Treaty of Rome (1957) onward. It was meant to lead to the breaking down of borders, the pooling of sovereignty, and the harmonization of economic activity across the Continent. The plan was the nearest thing that post–World War II Europe had to a religion.

It is worth recalling how explicit these Europhiles used to be. At Louvain, Belgium, in 1996, German chancellor Helmut Kohl said, “The nation-state cannot solve the great problems of the 21st century.” European integration was, he said, “a question of war and peace in the 21st century.” In the 1990s, when the great push to turn a trading bloc into a single political union began, this was a common enough sentiment. Around the same time, the leader of the German Greens claimed that after Auschwitz it was no longer possible to be “against” the EU, and a member of the Bundesbank directorate, Helmut Hesse, declared that monetary union was “the last step in a process of integration that began only a few years after the Second World War in order to bring Europe peace and prosperity.” When the British Euroskeptics opposed ever closer union, they were told that they were “little Englanders,” opposed in fact not only to the Continent but to the inevitable course of history and to peace itself.

Even ten years ago this argument was still being made by EU elites. When the Dutch went to the polls in 2005 to vote on the latest EU constitution, the European Commission ran ads featuring footage from the Holocaust and urging the Dutch to approve the document. The insinuation was that the sole alternative to ever closer union was a return to Auschwitz. EU elites professed to be liberals in favor of further integration, out of optimism for the Continent. In fact, whenever they seemed under pressure, they showed fear of the people. So it was hardly surprising when they increasingly took steps to bypass the people altogether. In 2005 the Dutch and French populaces rejected the new constitution. The EU authorities forced the publics to vote again, until they came up with the “correct” answer, and then stopped having referendums.

It is worth remembering this not-so-distant history in order to understand why feelings about Europe go so deep in British politics, especially on the right. For decades, the conservative Euroskeptics warned everybody who would listen that there were consequences to dissolving your own national bonds and giving up sovereignty to an unelected foreign bureaucracy. Only among politicians did this become an unusual position, furthering a growing disconnect between electorate and elected.

Over recent years, Conservative MPs got around this by flagrantly pandering to their Euroskeptic voters. They would pretend to be mad as hell about Brussels even when they were, like current prime minister David Cameron, increasingly relaxed about it. And this is just one of the reasons that, whatever happens in the referendum, the Conservative party is going to badly need stitching back up afterward. It will be hard for many voters to forgive a prime minister who spent his life posing as a Euroskeptic only for the referendum to have turned him into one of the EU’s greatest advocates. The same will go for many of his ministers. In six years in office, Home Secretary Theresa May has failed to meet every immigration target — a reduction of annual net migration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands — she has announced. Each time she blamed that failure on constraints imposed by the EU. Now she is campaigning for Britain to stay in that same EU, in order to meet immigration targets. The level of careerist-driven dishonesty is enough to make you give up on politicians entirely. That people have partly done so will be a strong reason for the outcome of the election if the vote is for Britain to leave.

Although the bureaucrats of Brussels like to summon the specter of the conservative Euroskeptic to explain every strange behavior of the British, when it comes to this referendum they do for once have a point, because the fact that the vote is happening at all is one of the few victories the Euroskeptic movement can claim for itself. Conservative-party dynamics have played a large part in the process the country is now voting on.

At the last election, Cameron promised a referendum on EU membership for the sole reason that he was trying to regain votes from the United Kingdom Independence party (UKIP) and win a majority for the Conservatives. Suspecting that he would not get a majority but would most likely have to form another coalition, he must have expected that he would never have to keep his promise. When he did get a slim majority in May of last year, it became clear that he would have to deliver. In preparation, he went through the charade of making “demands” of Brussels, returning with what even his political allies recognized as crumbs, though they were presented as major changes. He then asked the British people to vote on approving those changes or getting out altogether. By rushing the vote as he did, the prime minister hoped to beat a likely repetition of the alarming scenes of last summer’s migrant rush, and by making it a stark, in-or-out question, he hoped to rely on the innate conservatism of the British voter to reject such a profound change.

Unfortunately for the prime minister’s plan, he promptly lost some of his closest colleagues to the Leave side. Former London mayor Boris Johnson gave the Leave campaign popular heft, while Justice Minister Michael Gove gave it serious intellectual weight. Priti Patel, Iain Duncan Smith, and many others made the Leave camp look mainstream and respectable, as did the respected Labour MPs Frank Field and Gisela Stuart. Perhaps it was because his opponents looked so strikingly reasonable that Cameron’s immediate strategy was to forget every shade of EU gray he had previously recognized and paint the alternative to his own deal in blackest black.

In the campaign to date, the prime minister has informed the British public that the vote he has offered, should it go the “wrong” way, will lead to global recession, a simultaneous rise in mortgage payments and slump in housing prices, the invasion of Europe by Vladimir Putin, the end of peace on the Continent, and the arrival of at least three out of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. Of course, if these really were the consequences of a “wrong” vote, then it was jolly silly of Mr. Cameron to risk a vote in the first place.

Every day Downing Street releases another joint letter signed by select industry heads, former intelligence and military chiefs, and foreign dignitaries to try to persuade the British public that doom awaits it outside the EU. President Barack Obama came to declare that, notwithstanding its shared history with America, Britain had no more claim on U.S. affections when it came to trade deals than did Papua New Guinea. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau swung by to say that trade with his country also could not be taken for granted. To the consternation of Downing Street, this strategy, which media have dubbed “Project Fear,” appears not to be shifting the British people. Nor are the endless bribe campaigns whereby Brussels tries to stop Britons from getting back their sovereignty, promising, among other things, lower mobile-phone tariffs and cheaper holiday flights should they stay in.

That isn’t to say that the Remain side has no arguments. Its strongest argument is that the aftermath of a Leave vote would be uncertain. Remain proponents are right about that, and the extent to which they can terrify the public with that uncertainty will decide whether they will prevail on June 23. The nearly 300 actors and others who in mid May published a letter urging a Remain vote said that “leaving Europe would be a leap into the unknown for millions of people across the UK who work in the creative industries.” It is true that for any two members of the Leave side whom you ask to detail which “option” (Switzerland and Norway, for example, are not EU members but participate in different functions of the European Union) they would prefer once Britain leaves the EU, you will get two different answers. But neither is the “stability” argument on the Remain side in such a good state as its exponents seem to think.

Because if you believe that the EU has indeed brought peace and security to a continent, you should find it strange that the Continent is in such a mess. From north to south, west to east, every country in Europe is now experiencing an upsurge of populist revolt. From Marine Le Pen’s Front National to the Sweden Democrats and Austria’s Freedom party, all are objecting to the lack of democratic accountability in the EU, the dissolution of European culture by mass migration, and the destruction of national identity by an entity that believes national identity is the problem. If getting out of the EU is a “leap in the dark,” as the prime minister likes to say, why is that worse than locking yourself into a room that is clearly getting darker, with phantoms whose outlines are already clear? To be fair to it, the EU was always remarkably forthright about what it wanted to be when it grew up, and many British people regard the EU as, at best, an answer to a problem that is not theirs.

Of course, for years Americans of right and left have urged Britain to stay in whether they like it or not, in the belief that Britain can have a free-market, Atlanticist influence on what might otherwise be a socialist juggernaut. All one can say is that anybody who thinks Britain can perform that task has never studied the workings of the European Commission. No country has been voted against more. No country has been listened to less. The promise that it will be different tomorrow will not do. There are those who say, “But that is because you never really wanted it.” And it is true that Britain has always been suspicious of what its Continental friends were actually up to with this project. Which is one of the best reasons for Britain to let them get on with it but to remove itself from the path of their “progress.”

If on June 23 Britons vote to stay, they will lose the only leverage with Brussels they ever had — the possibility that they might walk at any moment. That will mean inexorably closer union for Britain, too. A mandate for Brussels from the British people will mean that from now on Britain will just have to suck up its European Commission refugee quotas (they vary among EU member states and in any case are inadequate to the numbers arriving) and pay its financial dues like everyone else — and accept that from now on British influence in the world is primarily exercised not through the historical, political, and military might of the fifth-largest economy in the world but through an unelected and unaccountable bureaucracy, in Brussels, that is failing before everyone’s eyes.

For years, the leadership in Brussels and Berlin summoned the presence of the conservative Euroskeptic as a definition of the Continent’s problem, something that held everyone else back from the sunlit uplands. As Britons look across the Continent today, with those uplands looking ever dimmer, not the least of the year’s amusements is that the people who were most reviled and ridiculed for the span of a political lifetime turned out to be the only people in Europe to have been right.

Mr. Murray is an associate editor of The Spectator and the author, most recently, of Bloody Sunday: Truth, Lies, and the Saville Inquiry.

Douglas Murray — Douglas Murray is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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