Is the genie coming out of the bottle?
If the opinion polls are to be believed, the Britishelectorate may vote by a small majority to leave the European Union (EU) in thecountry’s June 23 referendum.
The latest UK polls suggest that 45 per cent of thosevoting will chose to go, while 42 per cent will say they want to remain. Atpresent 13 per cent say they don’t know. The concern is that if young people,who are predisposed to vote to remain, cannot be mobilised, and the leadershipof the Labour Party do not do more to encourage its members to vote in the sameway, the United Kingdom will be plunged into a period of economic and politicalturmoil with unpredictable consequences beyond it shores.
While the pollsters may be wrong, and there is still thepossibility of change in voter sentiment, the markets believe that the vote maybe to leave and have begun to price-in the cost of uncertainty and the possibleinstability that will follow.
Although logic and common sense is largely on the remainand economic side of the argument, the increasingly emotional case againststaying appears to have gained traction in the last weeks. This seems to haveoccurred because the leave campaign has sought to appeal to the significantnumbers in the UK who are deeply concerned about uncontrolled EU migration, andits impact on public services, education and housing.
With the support of the populist print media, and blind tothe ways in which the world and Britain has changed since it became an EUmember in 1973, many older and less educated voters outside London, haverejected the strong economic argument for remaining. Instead they intend usingthe referendum to express their concern about migration, ignoring the fact thatany post-Brexit free trade relationship with the EU will require the continuingacceptance of the free movement of EU citizens.
To further confuse matters, an element of the leavecampaign has morphed into an attempt to seize control the leadership ofBritain’s ruling Conservative Party by some who are seeking a rapid path topower; their reasoning being that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, could notcontinue for long in his post if the pro-EU campaign were to be defeated.
Earlier this year I wrote two columns about theimplications for the region of a leave vote, and the need for the independentCaribbean and Britain’s Overseas Territories to carefully think though how andin what way they should respond if the UK decides to withdraw from the EU.
At that time, I noted a number of potentially seriousassociated issues: the possible negative impact on Caribbean exports and thedevelopment flows it receives; a diminution in the region’s ability toinfluence thinking on its policy concerns in Europe; a specific range ofproblems that will face the UK’s overseas territories in the region; and a longperiod of uncertainty as Britain’s foreign, trade and development policy isreoriented.
What has since become apparent, is that in addition to theissues mentioned, any vote to leave would have wider unpredictable consequencesthat may change the way we all come to see the world.
Firstly, it could result in the restructuring or thedisintegration of the EU itself.
Within Europe there are already serious tensions as aresult of the failure to agree how best to address the flood of refugeescrossing the Mediterranean, the sluggish economic performance of the Eurozone,differences over the economic management of the nations of the south, and theissue of ever closer union.
In response a number of federalist European leaders haveseen any UK vote to leave as the moment to strengthen the EU integrationprocess.
However, speaking just days ago in Luxembourg, the EuropeanCouncil President, Donald Tusk, said that EU elites had provoked the revolt nowerupting in many EU states. “We failed to notice that ordinary people, thecitizens of Europe, do not share our Euro-enthusiasm. “The spectre of abreak-up is haunting Europe.”
He also bluntly warned European leaders that their “utopian”illusions were tearing Europe apart, and that any attempt to seize on Brexit toforce through yet more integration would be a grave mistake.
The more probable focus, therefore, when all 28 EU leadersmeet on June 28-29 will be on managing the expected financial and politicalturmoil if the UK votes to leave, and launching a formal process of reflection.Despite this, they are well aware that how they react to any decision by theBritish people to leave could exacerbate national concerns about the EU; forexample, in France where, in an electoral year, the populist Fronte Nationalsees an anti-EU stance and exit as vote winning.
Secondly, all of this is now causing alarm in Washingtonwith statements coming from the White House, the military and the FederalReserve stressing the importance of a strong and unified EU as a global partnerin maintaining a stable economic, political and security environment.
Thirdly, in contrast, Russia would be delighted to see aweakening of EU unity. Over simplified, President Putin believes in competingspheres of influence, and is committed to restoring Russian power and greatnessto the Russian people. He more than anyone would find helpful the exit of theUK and a less stable Europe, especially if it weakens the position of EUnations adjacent to his country’s borders.
And finally, a no vote could trigger the ending of the UKas a unitary entity. Scotland, which is solidly for remaining in the EU, hasmade clear that if the country as a whole were to vote to leave, it wouldconsider seeking another referendum on independence as it would wish to remainwithin the EU. The consequence being that that the global economic and powerand influence of what then is left of the UK would be severely diminished.
All of which could coincide with Donald Trump becoming theUS President. Even if you believe a fraction of what he says, it is clear thatif he becomes President he would tear up the world order of the last seventyyears in favour of a transactional, protectionist approach and would take stepsthat challenge almost every US relationship.
How the Caribbean might respond to letting all these geniesout of the bottle at once is far from clear.
It is a subject I will return to.
David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council
He can be contacted at [email protected]
Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org