On June 23 this year, the voters of the UK and the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar will decide whether or not the United Kingdom should kiss the European Union goodbye—a so-called "Brexit" (British exit) from the EU.
The EU is a 28-nation political and economic union that more or less evolved from the European Economic Community (EEC), which was founded in 1957 by its "Inner Six" nations. A key purpose of the EEC was to prevent another war in Europe by making its countries more economically interdependent.
Britain joined the EEC in 1975.
In 1993, the EEC was replaced by the European Union (EU). The EU goes beyond the economic interdependence of the EEC to include some political interdependence—a reality at the heart of the Brexit debate. There is even a European Parliament.
Since 1993, but especially in recent years, complaints in the UK about the EU, principally about immigration to Britain from both EU and non-EU nations and the loss of too much British sovereignty to the EU, have grown loud and politically organized and significant enough to strengthen calls for a British referendum on continued EU membership. Those opposing EU membership are often referred to as Euroskeptics.
In the 2015 General Election, in part to halt the rise of the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP), led by Nigel Farage (photo above), Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron campaigned on a promise to first negotiate a better deal for the UK within the EU and second to hold an "in or out" nationwide referendum.
Prime Minister Cameron (photo below) has since negotiated a set of UK special rights and exceptions within the EU. Here are some of the UK-EU deal's key points outlined by the BBC.
Meanwhile, debate regarding staying in or leaving will dominate public discourse in the UK until the 23rd of June referendum. A good example of the debate can be heard on the February 19 edition of the topical panel program on BBC Radio 4, Any Questions.
Below is a chart from The Economist outlining just a few oft-stated argument for and against Brexit.
The referendum vote could be close, as you can see in the below chart. (Click any image below for an enlarged view in a separate window.)
The Conservative Party is divided on the question of EU membership. A pro-Brexit voice countering Cameron within his own party is the Conservative mayor of London, Boris Johnson. (Some say that "BoJo" covets the leadership of the Conservative Party, though he denies it and remarked, "My chances of being PM are about as good as the chances of finding Elvis on Mars, or my being reincarnated as an olive.")
Johnson cites the loss of too much UK sovereignty to the EU. Perhaps he also believes that greater autonomy from EU regulations means that London's already impressive financial services and banking sectors could prosper further, help greater London's economic might, and allow a greater share of the taxes on that wealth to go to the UK and less to Brussels. ("Brussels" is a common metonym for the EU because several significant EU-related institutions are there. However, key EU institutions are also in Frankfurt, Luxembourg, and Strasbourg.)
The UK's always had a conflicted relationship with continental Europe and so not surprisingly with the EEC and then the EU. Here's a 2014 overview by Sam Wilson of the BBC on the rocky relationship between Britain and EU.
The UK was not an original EEC member. It didn't apply till 1961 following the Suez Crisis—a successful British-French-Israeli military invasion of the Suez Canal zone, which Egypt had seized and nationalized.
Largely due to the remarkable occurrence of the United States and the USSR working together against France, Britain, and Israel, the Suez Crisis ended in a profound political and diplomatic defeat for the UK, which most historians agree marked the effective end of the British Empire. (The US cited its commitment to "anti-colonialism" while not exactly rigorously applying a similar commitment regarding the Panama Canal or Guantanamo Bay.) Photo: British tanks in Egypt during the Suez Crisis.
Aware of its diminishing global stature, the UK knocked on the EEC's door hoping to enjoy the anticipated economic benefits. (Denmark and Ireland did so that year, too.) But in 1963, saying "l'Angleterre, ce n'est plus grand chose" ("England is not much anymore"), French President Charles de Gaulle (depicted below), who also saw British membership as a Trojan horse for US influence (Wikipedia), vetoed UK membership, and the application was suspended.
After de Gaulle left power in France, the UK, under Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath, applied again in 1973 for EEC membership. The application was accepted, and a British referendum was held in 1975 with more than 67% of British voters casting ballots in favor of EEC membership.
The UK-EEC relationship soured in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, though she and most Conservative MPs had supported the UK's entry into the EEC in the 1970s as an advancement for free trade. However, by the Thatcher era the new concept of a European Union successor to the EEC was under serious consideration, and Thatcher saw the EU as a potentially dangerous threat to British sovereignty.
On 1 November 1993, the European Union came into existence via the Maastricht Treaty, with Britain as a member but its electorate never having a direct referendum vote. In Denmark, a referendum actually failed, and in France a referendum passed with only 51% in favor.
Later, many nations of the EU adopted a common currency, the euro (€ / EUR), but the UK (and Denmark) were granted exemptions, and Britain kept its own currency, the pound sterling (£ / GBP). Thus the UK is an EU member but not a member of the so-called Eurozone.
The EU-UK relationship at first was strengthened under Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, but worsened when his government disagreed with other EU nations over the invasion of Iraq, a US project to which the UK provided more military and diplomatic support than any other US ally.
Then the EU began facing a Euro debt crisis and other problems.
The BBC's Sam Wilson:
In December 2011, as EU leaders tried to tackle their problems through a treaty setting new budget rules, David Cameron demanded exemptions for the UK and then vetoed the pact. To critics, this cut Britain adrift. But it delighted British Eurosceptics and encouraged them to demand more. Soon enough, the prime minister promised a referendum on British membership. Britain's most poisonous political issue was back centre stage.
Globalization is a significant factor in the Brexit versus Remain debate. Pro-Brexit voices argue that the EU is increasingly irrelevant in a world with a more connected global economy, especially after the rise of the Internet, as well as one in which China and other new large national economies are growing at a feverish pace. In 1980, the EU represented 30% of the world economy but, Euroskeptics point out, it now represents only 17% even as its membership has grown.
The Remain voices point to the same realities as reasons to stay in the EU, arguing that membership is more vital than ever as a vehicle for amplifying Britain's voice and heft economically and politically and for better coordinating security measures relative to jihadist terrorism.
Not surprisingly, Euroskeptics point to the security weaknesses of many continental nations as a reason to leave the EU, fully confident that British security services, already considered the best in Europe, are sufficient to the task, especially as members of the "Five Eyes" intelligence alliance of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and the US.
Illustration: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (of Luxembourg) aboard an ill-fated European Union being abandoned in the nick of time by David Cameron, the British Prime Minister.
I share Euroskeptics' doubt about the significance of the EU concessions that Cameron achieved for Britain. I agree that Britain has lost too much sovereignty to the EU. Also, I think EU regulations are particularly onerous on British small businesses. It seems odd to me that due to EU membership, Britain must disadvantage foreign workers from places like India, Canada, or the US compared to those from other EU countries. However, I think that Brexit could threaten the unity of the UK itself by inflaming Scottish nationalism. A majority of Scottish voters value EU membership. Also, I think the vision of the EU as a mechanism to prevent war among its members is too significant to be jettisoned altogether by Britain or any EU member.
I think Britain will vote to stay in the EU, and I think that the Prime Minister has done the right thing: winning concessions for Britain and remaining committed to keeping the UK in the EU for the foreseeable future. But, Britain should be vigilant against ways the EU could entangle it in other member nations' problems or significantly weaken the liberties of the sceptered isle that gave the world the Magna Carta, a common law tradition stressing individual rights, and the modern parliamentary system.