After more than a year of promises, David Cameron has finally set a date for a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union. After managing to make a deal with the 27 other states, Cameron will campaign for the UK to vote to stay on the 23rd of June. But what exactly does his ‘deal’ with the EU mean? What would happen if the British left? And is this the only threat to the EU?
At the last general election Cameron promised that if he won, there would be a in/out referendum on EU membership. Like I said at the time, this was a very cynical tactic, as Cameron himself must know that leaving the EU would be a disaster. Faced with a tough election though, he chose to try and keep his Eurosceptic voters from defecting to the anti-EU UKIP. He did, however, leave himself the option open to campaign either for or against leaving.
Now Cameron has transformed into a pro-EU ‘stay’ campaigner, all on the basis of the deal he has made with the EU. So what is this deal? Essentially it’s a number of measures that give the UK even more of a special status within the EU. Some of them are cosmetic, such as commitment to less regulation within the EU and an understanding that the UK is not committed to “ever closer union” like the rest of the states. Others are more economic, ensuring that Britain won’t suffer disadvantages for remaining outside the eurozone. The most controversial, however, are the limits imposed on benefits for recent EU migrants to the UK, aimed mainly at Eastern Europeans.
So what will happen if the UK votes to leave in 4 months time? Well, you have arguments for and against, as summarised in this handy guide, but it seems clear to me that it would a terrible idea. The only certain gain is the idea of the ‘sovereignty’ that would return to London, but this would come at the cost of immense economic and political uncertainty and as a blow to Britain’s role in the world. The UK would go from being one of the three biggest players in Europe to one with a weakened and undefined role in the modern world. What’s worse is that support for EU membership is far higher in Scotland, which could lead to another referendum on Scottish independence.
However, the cost to the EU would be tremendous as well. As journalist Joris Luyendijk makes clear in a typically direct Dutch manner, the EU could “crush” the UK in negotiations on trade after a Brexit – but this isn’t the problem. The EU is already in a crisis of legitimacy, exacerbated by the current migrant crisis and debates over a unified response. The last thing Brussels – and Europe’s real leader, Angela Merkel – need is their second largest economy jumping ship. On the other hand, you could almost say that in ordinary times this might be an advantage, leaving Merkel and Germany with a much freer hand to push for greater integration.
These are no ordinary times though, and the UK is not the only threat to Europe. The migrant crisis has led much of Eastern Europe to rebel against the idea of quotas being imposed on each EU member. Countries like Poland, Slovakia and Hungary don’t really want to host any migrants, especially Muslim ones. Today the Hungarian PM even announced he wishes to hold a referendum on whether Hungary should accept such a quota. With pressures from east and west, the EU needs a win – and it’s up to David Cameron to bring one home. With polls still fairly close, he’s got his work cut out for him.