Brexit and What it Means for Britain and for Europe

By Farhang Jahanpour

Today (16 June 2016), Jo Cox, the 41-year old Labor MP, was killed after she was shot and stabbed in her constituency in Yorkshire. A 52-year old man was arrested in the area. The suspect was named locally as Tommy Mair.

There is as yet very little concrete information about him or his motives, and it is too early to jump to a conclusion and link his dastardly act with the referendum, but some eyewitnesses have said that before shooting Jo Cox twice, Mair shouted “Britain first”. Clearly, he is a deranged individual, but if he uttered those words, it is possible to conclude that the assault was connected with the referendum.

The fact remains that the assassination of such a strongly pro-EU MP is a big shock, a major loss and of course the source of great grief for her husband and her two small children. Before being elected as an MP in the last general election, Jo Cox had been a charity worker and a human rights campaigner all her life. Her husband, Brendan, used to work for Save the Children. They and their two little children lived a quiet and unassuming life in a barge on the Thames near the Houses of Parliament.

Her husband released the following touching statement after her death:

“Today is the beginning of a new chapter in our lives. More difficult, more painful, less joyful, less full of love. I and Jo’s friends and family are going to work every moment of our lives to love and nurture our kids and to fight against the hate that killed Jo.
Jo believed in a better world and she fought for it everyday of her life with an energy and a zest for life that would exhaust most people. She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn’t have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous.
Jo would have no regrets about her life, she lived every day of it to the full.”

In any case, this ugly deed provides an extreme example of the acrimonious debates that are held over the referendum. All campaigning has been suspended as a sign of respect for the death of the MP.

On June 23, the British people take part in a rare referendum on whether to stay in the European Union or to leave. Referenda are not vey common in Britain, and apart from its rarity this referendum may decide the fate of Britain for decades to come, and its outcome can also have a profound bearing on other EU states.

Whatever its outcome, the referendum has already created major rifts between those who wish to stay in the EU and those who wish to leave, and it has particularly split the Conservative Party asunder, with strong and unprecedented personal attacks on politicians on either side. There are deep divisions about Britain’s membership in the EU not only between the parties, but also within the parties, including some right-wing elements in the Conservative Party and some leftist politicians in the Labour Party going against their party’s official policy.

Britain has always been a reluctant member of the EU, and of its predecessor the European Community. The issue of Britain’s relationship with Europe has always been divisive and emotive. There are many reasons for this.

One important factor is that the English Channel separates the United Kingdom from Europe, not only physically but also mentally and politically. The fact of being an island race living on the edge of Europe has created a feeling of isolation that has set Britain apart from the continent.

British people love European countries and have been great travellers and admirers of European culture. Indeed more than two million Britons have moved to Europe and live there permanently, and there are now more than three million EU immigrants who live and work in Britain and are on the whole well integrated, but many Britons do not regard themselves as a part of the continent.

Another reason for a feeling of separateness has been Britain’s imperial history, which has brought it into conflict with her European neighbours. Although Britain has successfully moved beyond the empire, a slight feeling of superiority or at least of separateness still persists.
The foundations of the European Union go back to 1945 when European countries, especially France and Germany, decided to start a new era and put an end to their history of conflict. Britain, being outside the European stage, did not share this sentiment.

Although in his 1946 speech in Zurich, Winston Churchill spoke eloquently about Europe being “the home of all the great parent races of the Western world”, based on “Christian faith”, and once united “there would be no limit to the happiness, to the prosperity and glory” of the European people, nevertheless, he seemed to speak of Europe as a foreign observer and not as a member. He went on to say: “In all this urgent work, France and Germany must take the lead together. Great Britain, the British Commonwealth of Nations, mighty America, and I trust Soviet Russia – for then indeed all would be well – must be the friends and sponsors of the new Europe and must champion its right to live and shine.”

Therefore, it is striking that he saw Britain and the British Commonwealth, alongside mighty America and Soviet Russia, as friends and sponsors of the new Europe, which clearly did not include Britain.

When the European Coal and Steel Community was forged in 1951, Britain stood on the side-lines and she also declined an invitation to join the six founding nations of the European Economic Community [EEC] in signing the Treaty of Rome in 1957.

However, when Britain changed its mind and finally decided to join the EEC in 1961, her application was blocked by French President Charles de Gaulle who accused Britain of a “deep-seated hostility” towards European construction. This rejection did not strengthen the British people’s love for the new union.

Britain finally joined the EEC in 1973 under Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath when Gen de Gaulle had left the scene. Although the referendum for membership produced a resounding 67% votes in favour of joining, a small minority of Britons have always remained hostile to membership.

Although Britain ultimately joined the EU, she has always been semi-detached from it. In her 1988 speech in Bruges, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rejected “a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels”. She also negotiated a rebate from Brussels. Britain is not a member of the Eurozone, or of the Schengen Area.

Before the last general election, in order to calm the unrest in the Conservative Party about the EU, Prime Minister David Cameron promised a referendum if elected to office. In February 2016 he took part in 30 hours of talks in Brussels in order to negotiate a new EU deal. He declared that he had received major concessions from Brussels, and then announced that the referendum would be held on 23 June.

This was a hasty decision, because the issues surrounding British membership of the EU are too complex to be decided on the basis of an in-out vote, especially as the time allocated for the debates prior to the referendum is too short to discuss all those issues in detail.

All polls show that the vote is too close to call, with young people mainly in favour of remaining and older people mainly against it. The opponents of British membership stress the issue of immigration, loss of sovereignty and Britain’s financial contribution to the EU, while those who are in favour of it stress the benefits of being a member of the largest economic bloc in the world. During the last election, Mr Cameron had promised to bring the number of new immigrants down to tens of thousands, but last year there were over 330,000 immigrants, most of them from the EU.

Those on the left object to the EU due to what they regard as its cosy relationship with big business, with neoliberal economy, its close links to the United States and the NATO, and her recent siding with the Neoconservatives regarding relations with Russia over Ukraine and the stationing of anti-missile defence systems in Romania and Poland and huge military exercises in Baltic countries.

Although the Labour Party is officially in favour of remaining in the EU, the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is seen as a rather reluctant advocate of membership. As recently as June 2015, a short time before becoming the Labour leader, Corbyn said: “There is no future for a usurious Europe that turns its smaller nations into colonies of debt peonage.” Those on the left of the British politics believe that those remarks are as true today as they were a year ago when they were made.

While an end to conflict in Europe is certainly a good thing, many people not only in Britain but also throughout Europe question whether a United States of Europe is wise or feasible, given the distinct historical and cultural differences between the 28 EU member states.

Although it seems that a majority of English people are in favour of Brexit, certainly the majority of Scottish people are in favour of staying in. In fact, the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has threatened that if the majority of Scots vote in favour of remaining, but the country leaves the EU based on the votes of the majority of English people, that would provide grounds for a new referendum for Scottish independence.

Britain’s exit from the EU will certainly harm the plight of working class people who have benefited from EU regulations on minimum wage, annual holidays, maternity and paternity leave, pensions, etc. It will also be a setback for human rights as those who wish to exit often complain about EU human rights guidelines, which they regard to be excessive and intrusive.

While a united Europe acting as an island of peace trying to help the developing countries, and acting as a force to bring America and Russia closer together, would be a very good thing, a subservient EU that follows American dictates and forms a hostile bloc against Russia and China would certainly be a negative force.

Sadly, contrary to their own interests, EU countries joined in America’s unilateral sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program and even now after the nuclear agreement has been reached they have failed to take full advantage of the lifting of sanctions due to their fear of US retaliation.
As far as East-West relations are concerned, a more farsighted policy towards Ukraine could have brought it closer to Europe, without necessarily cutting it off from Russia, as was the aim of some US Neoconservatives who supported (some say engineered) the coup in Kiev.

The new wave of refugees to Europe has shown how fragile EU unity is. It has just scratched the surface and a great deal of ugly nationalism has emerged and many walls and barbed wire fences have been erected. Maybe what Europe needs is a more universal vision in order to be able to look outwards and not to take shelter in a European fortress.

Britain’s exit from the EU may in fact force the British people to re-examine their place in the new world, by realizing that the old days of the empire are gone and that even the “special relationship” with the United States will not be a substitute for strong links to Europe, as indeed most American politicians, including President Obama, have said that they would like Britain to remain in the EU.

At the same time, it can force the European states to re-examine their ambitions for a united Europe, and also to decide how far they want to go in forming a Western-bloc alliance against the East. A parochial Europe will not only violate her civilizational goals, it can indeed act as a negative force in the international community.

Europe’s greatest service would be to act as a bridge between the Middle East and Russia on the one hand and the American continent on the other, pushing for peace, for non-alignment, for non-interference in proxy wars in the Middle East and for creating a universal civilization based on European ideals of freedom, democracy, human rights, equality, free trade and global peace. With its long history and the legacy of the Enlightenment, Europe can help usher in a new global civilization.

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