The referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU) is still more than two years away but it is already the central topic of discussion in the media and among people who hold any sort of political opinion on any issue – of which admittedly, there are not many.
There was a lot of public reaction on the blogosphere recently when the Polish minister in charge of EU policy recommended that the British people should be told the “brutal truth” about the repercussions of Britain leaving the EU and that they should not be misled to believe they can “keep all the goodies and forget about the costs”. Ten days prior to his very candid advice to the British people he had met the British Prime Minister David Cameron and it is said that Poland flatly refused the idea that Mr. Cameron has been trying to sell – with very limited success – that immigrants from the EU to Britain should not qualify for social security benefits for a period of four years following their entry into the UK.
The Polish minister, Mr. Trzaskowski, pointed out quite rightly that Britain would lose much of its influence in Europe and the world if it left the EU, and that was perhaps indirectly enforced by US President Barack Obama who chipped into the debate by saying that he hoped that the UK would not leave the EU. His concern is understandable because the UK is the US’s prime agent in the European Union. It was also pointed out by the Polish minister that depending on what the UK wanted from the EU after its exit, it may still have to pay into the EU budget just as the Swiss and Norwegians do. He went on to suggest that if the British think that even after leaving the EU they could go on having second homes on the continent (many Brits have a second home in Spain) or that there would be no restrictions on their travel to and from these EU countries or that their goods would be exempted from custom duties, they might have another thing coming.
In some ways, perhaps, Mr. Trzaskowski may have gone a bit over the top. Travel without visa to European countries was available to British citizens even before the country had joined the EU and one sees very few problems in British citizens owning properties in Europe, although it may be true to say that a Europe whose patience has been exhausted by Britain’s efforts to keep its political cake while having its economic cake, may decide to take a harder line.
But it was not the questionability of any of these claims that most people seemed to be objecting to. The main objection seemed to be who is this Polish guy to tell us what to do, and that reaction encapsulated much of the British attitude that has been the driving force behind this business of leaving the EU. Very little of the debate so far has been focused on hard facts and figures, the physical pros and cons of leaving Europe and setting out on one’s own, or for that matter, what exactly setting out on one’s own would signify. It is impossible to conclude that Britain would cease to have any relations with Europe but then, what exactly would the tenor of these relations be? Too much of the debate is about “foreigners” scrounging on British social security benefits, taking advantage of British schools and hospitals without paying a penny in tax, without any specific figures to support these claims. And it is that attitude about foreigners that comes out mainly in the reaction to Mr. Trzaskowski’s comments, with some not hesitating to point out that it had taken virtually no time for Adolf Hitler to knock out Poland’s middle stump and where would Poland be if Britain had not taken on the might of the Nazi war machine.
Whether or not the results of leaving the EU as painted by the Polish minister are realistic, the important point he made is that the British government may be setting itself unrealistic targets for EU reform which the other EU countries are in no mood to fulfill and which the British people are being led to believe are achievable. This is the main factor that could easily lead to a negative referendum result. Mr. Cameron has nailed his colours so decisively to the mast in the form of withdrawing social benefits for EU migrants who have stayed less than four years in the UK that if he is unable to get this concession – and the chances for winning that do not appear to be high – then for all practical purposes it will be extremely difficult to sell his negotiations on EU reforms to the British public. He is banking on the fact that these EU reforms he is negotiating will be meaningful enough to help him to get a vote to stay on, but with the entire reform issue boiling down to the four year social benefit change, this could go heavily awry.
In fact, with the initial exchanges showing that Mr. Cameron may be well behind on points, some 50 Tory MPs are said to be preparing a front to work towards a British exit from the EU. That piece of news did not go down too well with Prime Minister Cameron and in answer to a reporter’s question he rather sternly pointed out that all Tory MPs had signed to a certain party line which they were bound to follow and if they did not like the line, their only option is to leave the party. This lead to further unpleasant exchanges as a result of which the question arose whether Tory MPs would be allowed a free vote when it comes to it or would the party whip be in operation. No formal answer to that thorny question is forthcoming at the moment because there is no answer that would not raise further issues. Any insistence by the government on the need to toe the party line could well lead to a revolt within the party which, on the issue of future membership of the EU does not ever seem to be far from the surface. So for the time being both sides have agreed on an amicable ceasefire saying that the Prime Minister will be given time to negotiate whatever special terms he has in mind and it is understood that the group of right wing 50 MPs will decide on their further course of action once the results of these negotiations are known.
What is even more galling for many Britons is the fact that the ultimate outcome of the British attempt for revised terms for EU membership will, in the end, depend almost exclusively on what the Germans think and what attitude is taken by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel – the very same Germans who were defeated in the last world war, a fact never forgotten in these parts and reflected in the popular British chant at England versus Germany football matches “two world wars and one World Cup, ya ya, ya ya…”. The World Cup win refers to England’s victory over Germany in the final of the 1966 World Cup, now part of English folklore and, given the England team’s recent performances on the football pitch, likely to remain folklore for some time to come. And from that, one may derive the punch line that clinging on to folklore for too long may not be quite the way to go.•