Brexit: Cameron’s risky game

Murari Sharma

Brexiters are desperate. They are angry at everything and everyone that suggests that the British people should vote to remain in the European Union in the 23 June 2016 referendum. The recent victim of their desperation and ire has been no less a personage than the US President Barrack Obama himself.

President Obama was in London recently to wish the Queen her happy 90th birthday and help Prime Minister David Cameron win the referendum in which the British people will vote whether they want to remain in the EU or leave.

The Leave campaigners have sought to create a bubble that Britain outside the EU will be a prosperous paradise at the center of the universe, free from pesky European countries. But Obama punctured their bubble by announcing that Britain outside the EU will be less powerful, less secure, and less prosperous, and it will have to wait for five to 10 years to sign a trade agreement with the United States. That was shattering for the Leave campaign.

Boris Johnson, the leader of the Leave campaign and mayor of London, was so angry that he descended into an ad hominem. He said President Obama had anti-colonial mindset obtained from his Kenyan father. Although the reference was made to the removal of British Prime Minister Churchill’s from the Oval Office, the mayor was angry because of his intervention on behalf of the Remain campaign.

The anger has been on the rise, especially after the latest opinion polls have given a slight edge to the Remain campaign over the Leave campaign. In the latest Opinium/Observer polls, 42% opted to stay and 41% to leave. Before that, the Leave side was slightly ahead in a highly divided Britain. Such division also exists in the government. Prime Minister David Cameron, the chancellor, and the majority of cabinet members are campaigning to stay, whereas six ministers have been openly propping up the opposite camp.

Cameron is to blame for creating this crisis of choice, a risky game to keep his warring flocks together, which may destroy him. When a small, nationalist UK Independence Party, led by a flamboyant former banker Nigel Farage, cut into his party’s electoral territories, Cameron pushed the panic button of a referendum. The UKIP and a large segment of conservatives have never been able to digest the EU membership.

After promising the referendum, Cameron sought concessions from Brussels on issues of sovereignty, migration and welfare benefits, economic governance, and competitiveness. Other members of the EU have taken the demand as a sort of blackmail. While they have conceded some ground in paper, it is difficult at this stage to ascertain how many of the paper concessions will translate into reality, for all other 27 countries have to agree to any deal.

Among the concessions, two are notable. One, Britain would never be forced to join the euro. Two, it could trigger an emergency button if the migration from Europe and consequent burden on the welfare budget turned out to be unsustainable. For the Euro-skeptics, who want to have nothing to do with the EU, it was too little.

Although they have cited several reasons to justify Britain leaving the group, the Leave campaigners are propelled by political and emotional desire to free the country from Brussels’s shackles in all aspects. If the British people want to retain more control over sovereignty, no one can quarrel about that.

However, it will come at a huge price to the British economy and the British standing in the world. Britain will lose the free access to the European market. British products will be more expensive in Europe and British exports will suffer. Similarly, British consumers will have to pay much higher prices for product and services. Reduced competition will drive up the price.

Especially, the cost of construction, plumbing, electrification, etc. could increase three times if skilled people from the poorer members of the EU cannot come and work in Britain. For instance, I had to get my cabinet pulled out and fixed again by moving it a bit. A British proper carpenter demanded £120 for it, while an Eastern European did the job for £50.

What is more, Britain will not be free from EU regulations if it wants to enjoy free access to the continental market. That would mean all obligations and contributions, but without the seat at the table just like Norway and Switzerland. That is worse than the present situation.

Besides, Britain might get as good a deal as either Switzerland or Norway if the EU wants to send a strong signal to other prospective members that leaving the group is unconscionably damaging.

Britain will also lose its standing in the world. Britain with the EU backing would be perceived as much stronger power than Britain in isolation. The United States, with which Britain has special relations, will rather work closely with 27 European countries than with London. Ditto for other countries.

While such losses would be clear and deep, there will be no tangible benefits of leaving the EU. Controlling the border better has been the strong refrain of the Leave group. However, the migrants who want to come to Britain and are now alighting in Greece and Italy will head straight to Dover and Folkestone in their precarious boats. Calais will move to Kent.

If European migrants would have more difficulty in coming to the UK, then the UK citizens will have a difficult time to live and work in Europe. No palpable advantage here either.

At any rate, if the Remain side loses the referendum, its cheerleader, David Cameron, will lose his post. Forget the assurances from the likes of Johnson that the prime minister may continue regardless of the result. Kenneth Clarke has said it clearly that Cameron will not last. Johnson etching to become prime minister will immediately pounce on Cameron.

If the British people vote with their heart, Britain will be out of the EU on the 24 June, though it will have two years to make the transition. If the British vote with their brain, the country will become a stronger member of the EU on 24 June.

Thank god, Obama would not be president for long to put Johnson in an awkward position if he is elevated to the Tory leadership.

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