In early September 2003 the Estonian Kanal 2 TV channel aired a program to explain a few details about the upcoming referendum on that country’s membership of the EU. The host was well-known politician Toomas Hendrik Ilves (now the President of Estonia) and the guest was a leading figure from the European Parliament. The show outlined to the viewing audience the implications of the outcome of their referendum and near the end the host asked his guest, “If Estonia votes No then what is Plan B?” The answer from Europe was unequivocally clear, “There is no Plan B. If you vote No then you are with Belarus.”
Well that was pretty stark and Estonia, much as expected, voted by 2 to 1 to join the EU and the rest is history.
Consider this though, outside the UK and with very few exceptions the EU is immensely popular even if it is certainly recognised as flawed and imperfect. The EU is the target, and indeed the source, of much dissatisfaction from the Black Sea to the Baltic to the Bay of Biscay but that does not alter the fundamental need that is attached to the institution of the Single Market. There are 27 members out there who could not conceive of a Europe without the EU, warts and all and a number of candidates for entry waiting impatiently in the wings.
Why in the name of anything sane would the UK seek to leave the EU?
Only last week there was a major role-playing exercise conducted by real-life senior political figures. The scenario which was acted out was the pre-amble to a UK European referendum followed by negotiation of a Brexit following a vote to leave the EU. Malcolm Rifkind played the role of PM in the first part of the role-playing. However, under the assumption that David Cameron will resign should he lose the referendum, Rifkind was replaced by Norman Lamont in the second part of the war-games. When the issue came down to carving out an exit deal the UK faired rather badly.
Let’s take up the narrative as described by The Economist:
“Lord Lamont, a former Tory chancellor of the exchequer representing Britain, argued that an ‘amicable divorce’ was in everybody’s interests. Britain could negotiate a trade deal similar to Canada’s, liberating it from EU rules, including free movement of people. He even volunteered to pay something into the EU budget.
“Yet other countries were unimpressed. John Bruton, a former prime minister representing Ireland, said Brexit would be seen as an ‘unfriendly act’ and would threaten the peace process in Northern Ireland (Enda Kenny, Ireland’s real prime minister, made a similar point after meeting Mr. Cameron on the same day). Steffen Kampeter, a former deputy finance minister representing Germany, said Britain would not be allowed to cherry-pick the benefits of membership without the costs. Mr. de Gucht noted that a new trade deal would be negotiated by the European Commission and national governments with minimal British input. He and others added that they would try to shift Europe’s financial centre from London.
“The starkest warning came from Leszek Balcerowicz, a former deputy prime minister representing Poland. He said the priority would be to deter populists in other countries who wanted to copy Brexit. For this reason Britain would be punished by its partners even if that seemed to be against their interests.”
Why indeed would the EU wish to make a Brexit easy for the UK? The OUT camp tells us repeatedly that it would be in Europe’s best interests to reach a good accommodation with the UK as these islands have such a large share of trade with the continental Union.
Conversely it would seem to be the ideal opportunity for those countries which regard the UK as a bothersome rival in various markets to level out the playing field. The previously stated opportunity to shift financial markets away from the City of London is only the most blatantly obvious tip of a huge iceberg – every British company currently relying on exporting to the EU had better start to consider what the impact might be to their bottom line if Brussels imposed tariffs on their products and/or services. For instance, why would Europe offer British carmakers such as Land Rover Jaguar favourable terms to compete with the major manufacturers in France, Germany, Italy and beyond? There is no logic to such easy assertions from OUT campaigners.
In fact, Brexit would almost certainly be viewed from the continent as a fundamental betrayal of the European Project. Under those circumstances why would the betrayed offer a get-out-of-jail-free-card to the betrayer? Again there is no logic to the assertions of OUT.
Part of that impending betrayal has further geopolitical implications. Many of the 2004 expansion countries of the EU have a perpetual eye to the east and that has become more acutely focused since Vladimir Putin has been conducting his adventures in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. This is primarily an issue for NATO but a Brexit would certainly send the wrong kind of signal to the Kremlin. For Moscow to imagine that Europe is unravelling all by itself would offer a green light for all kinds of alternative scenarios in the Baltics for instance. This is not a suggestion that Russia might invade Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania but it would open up a whole new Pandora’s Box of opportunities for Putin to interfere in his ближнее зарубежье, his so-called “near abroad,” which would suit him just fine and play massively well to domestic Russian public opinion.
It is certainly the case in modern politics, especially in the UK and the US, that joined-up-thinking has been consigned to the dustbin in favour of sexy sound bites. It suits politicians to treat each policy subject in splendid isolation and to utterly disregard any and all other attendant issues. This is insulting in the extreme to the electorate who are supposed to suck up this intellectual incoherence but that is what the IN and OUT sides of the argument are both offering – complete and utter intellectual incoherence. To expect the wider electorate to make an informed decision on the future of the UK’s involvement with Europe whilst being deprived of a coherent narrative examining all the implications is both disingenuous and dangerous. The IN camp is following this route as they really don’t know what, if anything, of substance David Cameron can secure from Brussels whilst OUT simply wants to polarise opinion and sow enough seeds of doubt to make IN just too big a risk to entertain.
But just in case there is any room for doubt let’s go back to the top:
“What is Plan B?”
“There is no Plan B. If you vote No then you are with Belarus.”
For Europe IN is the only way and OUT is the non-existent Plan B. So here’s to Britain and Belarus…