Brexit or clarion call for a new blueprint for Europe

A Brexit would be an indictment of the Commission. It would open a breach in fortress Europe. It would weaken Europe and could lead to further fracture

In last Tuesday’s BBC debate on the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union held this week on 23 June 2016, the overriding dogma repeatedly hammered by those supporting Brexit was ‘Take back control’.

This core ‘ideology’ stood out as a powerful leitmotiv. Take back control of the sovereignty of Britain over the diktats of the all powerful and highly paid bureaucrats of Brussels and the European Courts of Justice. Take back control over taxes, over rules and laws, over trade, over the economic and business space, over border control and immigration, over the benefits of the welfare state. In short, take back control over Britain’s destiny as a nation.

It must be said that David Cameron never thought that his February 2016 gamble to call for a referendum to settle the issue of Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU) against the lobby of Euro sceptics, following the ‘concessions’ he proclaimed to have obtained from the EU would backfire and be so divisive. It has resulted in bitter divisions in government with six of the senior Ministers of his Cabinet joining the ‘Leave’ campaign. As the debate on whether Britain should remain or leave the EU raged, the lead of the ‘Remain’ campaign seemed to have thawed. In the light of the latest polls, the two sides are running neck and neck. The outcome of the referendum is too close to call.

The rise of the ‘Leave’ campaign in the polls does not seem to be based on any rational argumentation or a clear roadmap for the future. Apart from the all-encompassing ‘Take back control’ mantra, it is anchored on an inchoate angst stemming from a mixed bag of deep-seated fears and concerns about the growing role of Brussels in shaping the policy framework, laws and rules governing the livelihoods of British citizens. These encompass a broadening range of matters affecting British citizens such as trade, the economy, immigration, the environment, transport, consumer rights, social benefits and even mobile phone charges which are being decided in common in Brussels or in the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The Brexit supporters and the British people legitimately feel that they and the Parliament in Westminster should have a more determinant say and oversight on all EU driven policies, laws or rules affecting their livelihoods.

We must remember that the integration of Europe into a customs union and a single EU market has entailed the enactment of standardized laws and rules agreed by Member states relating inter alia to the free circulation of goods and services, people and capital or the application of a common external tariff. Similarly, common policies regarding trade, agriculture, fisheries or trade agreements with existing and other trading partners are negotiated by the EU as a single economic and commercial entity. In a context of growing jingoism, those supporting Brexit perceive all these developments and common EU decisions as a loss of sovereignty.

There is also an abject scaremongering campaign by the Brexit camp on immigration fuelled by the migrant crisis faced by the EU. The red flag of Turkey joining the EU is also shamefully being brandished when everyone knows that Turkey’s accession to the EU is highly unlikely as it requires adherence by Turkey to a long list of very strict conditions and more importantly the approval of all the 28 EU Member States. This condemnable campaign is in the teeth of the overwhelming evidence publicly recognised across the British political divide that immigrants have been a potent vector of growth through their entrepreneurship and diligent work and have provided a welcome impetus to the economy and the services sector. Migrants thus contribute enormously to the prosperity of the country.

Not surprisingly, the two main protagonists of the Remain and Leave campaign at the BBC debate, namely Sadiq Khan, the Labour Mayor of London, and Boris Johnson, the previous Conservative Mayor of London, are both of immigrant origin. The UK migration statistics show that half of the net migration in 2015 i.e. 184,000 persons came from EU countries in accordance with the EU rule of free movement of people in the EU space.

Pipe dreams

The uncertain outcome of the referendum has led more than 1,280 of the Financial Times Stock Exchange (FTSE) bosses and business leaders, President Obama, George Soros, Canada, Australia as well as most of the British trade unions to come out publicly in support of the Remain campaign. Most economic experts say that Brexit will cause the British economy to shrink in the short term as trade, investments and employment would be adversely affected. The pound sterling is almost certain to fall. Akin to a commercial hara-kiri, Brexit would cut off the fifth largest world economy and the second largest in the EU from its largest market, the EU. The services sector which represents about 80% of the UK economy and the UK financial services will no longer be able to have the EU market access which they have now. Half a million jobs in London depend on the EU.

There is an absence of a coherent post Brexit roadmap. The Brexit leaders have not been very explicit as to how they propose to translate their ambition for a better and more prosperous Britain into reality. Without a clear plan, Brexit is a road to uncertainty. The claim that a free Britain will be able to negotiate improved trade arrangements with the EU and other countries in the world is more easily said than done. Post Brexit, Britain will have to negotiate new trading terms with the EU, its biggest market. The EU could impose similar terms as in the case of the trade arrangements they have agreed with Norway and Switzerland, namely a big payment to its budget and the free movement of EU workers in return for allowing free access to the EU market. Norway paid £115 per head of population for free market access in 2014. In contrast, Britain paid £220 per head as a full Member of the EU in the same year. Britain would be worse off.

There is also the potential risk that less favourable terms are imposed on Britain as a deterrent to prevent other countries from leaving the EU. Almost half of British exports are taken by the EU whereas Britain imports less than 10% of EU exports. Brexit would also mean that Britain will also have to negotiate preferential market access with the 52 countries with whom the EU including Britain currently has trade agreements with. Isn’t all this simply daft?

Similarly, Britain would have to negotiate its exit terms according to the leonine provisions of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. This Article provides two years for these negotiations, a period which can only be extended by unanimous decision. The Article also stipulates that the exit terms will be determined without the involvement of the country which is exiting the EU. It is clear that under such stringent conditions, the negotiations will be protracted and not likely to be very favourable to Britain. Under these circumstances, how can Brexit be a credible and viable option for the future? Britain cannot thrive on pipe dreams.

A Brexit will also cause collateral damage to Britain. Scotland which is resolutely Europhile could push for a referendum to leave the United Kingdom. Brexit would also mean a defeat for David Cameron who would probably step down. It would also have profound repercussions on the trading and commercial arrangements of Mauritius with Britain.

In 2015, about a third of our EU exports were sold to the British market which was also the third largest source of tourists. Should Britain vote for Brexit, Mauritius would have to promptly engage Britain in bilateral talks to safeguard the preferential market access terms of an important market for our exports. Will Britain be ready to concede at least similar preferential market access conditions for our goods and services as presently? We could also raise the issue of compensatory measures with the EU.

 The case to remain

Britain already plays a leading role in the EU in defence and security, in being a vital bridge with the United States or in foreign policy. In a globalised world, being part of the EU, the second largest economy in the world with a market of 508 million people comprising 28 countries carries more clout. This is all the more important in a world which is being reshaped by the growing economic importance and enormous market size of China and India. Britain whose voice carries weight will certainly be able to better influence decisions and help shape a new and better blueprint for Europe from within if it remains part of the EU. Britain will also better assure its safety against terrorism by remaining within the EU.

The surge in Brexit supporters should also be a wakeup call for the EU. A Brexit would be an indictment of the Commission. It would open a breach in fortress Europe. It would also showcase a pervasive malaise among Member States and EU citizens regarding the present questionable blueprint for Europe. If not urgently addressed, it would weaken Europe and could lead to further fracture. It is clear that the blueprint for Europe being thrust on Member States and European citizens as well as the Commission’s ineptitude in conjuring the financial crisis since 2008 are being questioned in diverse Member States and by populist parties in Greece, Spain, Italy or France. It needs to be urgently overhauled in line with the people’s concept of Europe.

No blueprint for Europe is sustainable if it is not endorsed by the people. The important issues of sovereignty, ownership of measures proposed and due process of consultation and approval by Member States and their respective parliaments as well accountability and transparency are sine qua non conditions for Member States and the people to support the idea of Europe. Such a paradigm shift in approach is therefore vital to reconcile the concept of Europe with the needs and expectations of its people.

It is to be hoped that British voters have mobilised massively to thwart the risk of Brexit and ensure that common sense prevails over reckless adventurism.

* Published in print edition on 24 June 2016

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