The UK referendum: high stakes for both Europe and Britain

Dave Sinardet

Dave Sinardet is a Professor of Political Science at the Free University of Brussels (VUB), specialised in federalism, nationalism and multi level governance. He is also a columnist for De Tijd and La Libre Belgique. This week he writes his analysis on the issue of Brexit in light of the UK’s looming referendum.

The importance of the upcoming UK referendum on EU membership cannot be overestimated. For both Britain and the EU, much will be at stake on the day, somewhere before the end of 2017, when British citizens will have to answer the question ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union, or leave the European Union?’

The UK may not have been one of the founding members of the EU, nor one of the most passionate, and it may not be part of the Euro, it has been part of the club since 1973. The fact that such a long-time member state would vote to leave the EU can become a political precedent that can reinforce the political strength of Eurosceptics in many other European countries. Moreover, Britain remains an important player in foreign policy. Even though some European federalists hope that without the UK it would be easier to further integrate the EU – most notably on the social level, it looks more likely that a Brexit could inflict serious damage on the European project.

However, the impact of a Brexit might very well be stronger for the UK. Economically, but also politically. There is a lot at stake for current Prime Minister David Cameron. He may have gotten a comfortable majority at the recent general election, one of his promises could mean the end of his leadership. Indeed, if in the referendum campaign he defends the staying in option – which is extremely likely – while the out would win, the result would probably force him to resign.

Also, leaving the EU could very well lead to the definitive break up of the United Kingdom itself. Given the fact that support for EU membership is (a bit) stronger in Scotland, it is clear that the Scottish National Party will use a Brexit to call for a new referendum on Scottish independence which could be won by Scottish separatists.

The Scottish referendum last year showed that referenda can create dynamics and produce results that are quite unexpected. The majority of Scots may have voted to stay in the UK, in the end the call was much closer than initially expected (and hoped by Cameron). The same goes for the many referendums on EU treaty change that were held in different European countries during the past decades. The French vote against the project of European constitution in 2005 is probably one of the most striking examples.

One of the disadvantages of referenda is that people may vote on other issues than the one actually at stake. And indeed, even though staying in or getting out of the EU will not have a fundamental impact on the migration issue, the fact that some recent polls suggest that a majority could vote for leaving the EU is probably linked to public concerns over the current refugee crisis.

If the broader migration debate continues to dominate, the changes that David Cameron could get out of a renegotiaton of the terms of Britain’s EU membership will not play a very important role in the referendum debate. In any case the actual changes will probably not strongly influence the result. Given that most British newspapers favour a Brexit it is now already clear that these changes will largely be framed as marginal. The fact that Cameron intially declared he wanted treaty change will not help him to develop a credible counterframe.

Another indicator that makes a Brexit vote a conceivable scenario is that the case for national sovereignty seems to be quite successful these days, as was shown by the Scottish referendum, but also by Catalonia’s recent election and by the rise of state nationalism and Euroscepticism in many European countries. This success is certainly in part fuelled by a frustration among many voters who feel they have lost grip on political decision-making. While this frustration is understandable and to a large extent correct, the question is whether a return to the nation state is the solution to the problem. In today’s globalised world, national sovereignty is more than ever an illusion. Not only that, while returning to national sovereignty may not give you more actual power, it can even make you lose some. If after a Brexit, the UK would still want full access to the European single market, it would still have to comply with most of the EU rules. However, it will have lost the power it has today to contribute determining them.

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