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Brexit or not

Europe is an issue that has split Britain’s Labour party. Now it is the turn of the Conservatives

brexit, britain, england, european union, braitin eu, britain eu voting, britain referendum, brexit referendum, britain eu referendum, world news, uk news, england news, latest news Illustration picture of postal ballot papers ahead of the June 23 BREXIT referendum when voters will decide whether Britain will remain in the European Union. (Source: Reuters)

On June 23 the British voters will be asked to say “Yes” or “No” to the question of whether the UK should remain in the European Union or leave. The “leavers” are for Brexit — the British Exit from the European Union. The others are “remainers” as they want to remain. The UK has been a member of the EU since 1973. The Treaty of Rome, which founded the European Economic Community (“the Common Market”) was signed in 1956 between six European nations — France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. The UK, as the saviour of Europe, watched the Europeans getting together but did not want to join.

Within five years, it was obvious that the future lay with the fledgling group. The British Empire was on its way out. Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister from the Conservative party, began the process of applying to join. A fierce debate erupted. Hugh Gaitskell, the leader of the Labour party, denounced the decision. In any case, Charles De Gaulle, the president of France, vetoed British entry. Several attempts later, Edward Heath, another Conservative PM, was successful in getting Britain in the EU.

When Labour came to power in 1974, Harold Wilson knew that his party and his cabinet were split on the issue. To assure inner-party peace, he called a referendum, the first in British history to ratify the decision of 1973. The 1975 referendum was carried convincingly in favour of the decision to join.

“Europe” continued to divide the parties. In 1980, four prominent politicians, led by Roy Jenkins, left the Labour party and formed the Social Democratic Party over the differences towards Europe. The rest of the party was anti-Europe.

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Somehow the UK continued to stay in. The EEC itself evolved and became the European Community and later the European Union. From its six original members, it expanded to 15 by the 1990s. Then, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, several countries of Eastern Europe joined the EU. Now, the EU has 28 members.

The British have been always half-hearted about being in “Europe”. While all other EU members have abolished border controls with each other — the Schengen Agreement — the UK has an exemption. The Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992 declaring a single currency as a goal. The UK got an opt-out. When the euro was launched as a single currency, the UK stayed out.

The EU is a confederation. It has a parliament to which each member country sends elected members. The European Commission, the working part of the EU, has a president and a cabinet consisting of representatives of member countries. Rules and regulations binding on all members are laid down by the commission.

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The Labour party swung from hostility to friendship when it realised that workers’ rights were safer under the EU, while Margaret Thatcher, also a Conservative PM, was a threat to such rights. But the Conservatives remained unhappy. They wanted the association to be a market but not a political community and certainly not a supra-state. They began to be hostile to any plans to “deepen” Europe making it a federation.

Thatcher pleaded for Eastern Europe to be admitted as soon as the USSR had collapsed. This was to dilute the possibility of a deeper EU.

In 1990, Thatcher failed to win the leadership ballot in the first round and resigned. Pro-European MPs within the Conservative party were blamed for this. The split between the pro- and anti-Europeans within the Conservative party cost it three election defeats. When David Cameron became the leader of the Conservative party, he wished his colleagues would “stop banging on about Europe”.

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But he promised that as soon as he could, he would renegotiate the Treaty arrangements and “take powers back from Brussels”. The issues have been the familiar ones. Resentment against the rule by an unelected European Commission, the money that the UK has to pay for its membership, the 6,978 rules and regulations.

The central grievance is about the free movement of labour across the EU.

A single market, which the British like, implies free movement of goods and services, capital and labour.

Anyone from within the EU can choose to work in any country within the EU.

Free migration from East Europe has incited a special kind of anger. So we come to the referendum.

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At one level, it is a quarrel within the Conservative party. The cabinet is split. The campaign is getting more strident as days go by. There is a fear for the unity of the Conservative party when the referendum ends, whichever way the decision may go. David Cameron had announced during the last election campaign that he wishes to retire by 2019 in time to allow the party to choose a successor. Now it seems his leadership will be challenged, whatever the outcome of the referendum.

The Labour party is for “remaining” within the EU. The Scottish National Party is also for staying as is the Liberal Democratic Party. The bookies are betting on the UK remaining in the EU.

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The Brexiters argue that once out, the UK will be free to enter into a free trade agreement with any and all countries. It will be free of EU regulations, and above all, it will control its borders and restrict immigration. It will save the money it pays into the EU Budget. The Remainers say the exit would plunge the UK into uncertainty and risk losing access to the large EU market for its exports. The excitement of the referendum is nothing compared to what will happen when the result is declared.

If the voters decide to remain by a majority, the constitutional arrangements will continue as they are. If they vote for Brexit, then a long process of unwinding the trade relationships as well as many regulations will have to be rethought. It may take four years to unwind the relationship.

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The remaining members of the EU will not treat the UK kindly in its exit. Either way, the Conservative party will face a crisis. Europe has always been an emotive issue in British politics. It split the Labour party. Now it is the turn of the Conservatives.

First published on: 15-06-2016 at 12:05:03 am
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