The world’s largest and most powerful single trading bloc, the European Union, is to be buffeted by one major challenge. Still struggling to ward off a collapse of the Eurozone with massive bailouts not least to Greece, it has faced the attacks in Paris in 2015 as well as in Brussels highlighting the security threat posed by groups linked to or inspired by ISIS and Al-Qaeda. The huge numbers of refugees and migrants arriving in Europe by land and sea appears to show no sign of slowing down compelling states such as Austria to rip up the rule book.
To add to this in four months’ time on 23 June, Britain, the second largest economy and second largest in terms of population, will vote in an in-out referendum, the result of which is far from certain. It is a challenge the EU has never really faced, downsizing rather than enlargement.
Britain maybe the most Euroskeptic nation in the 28-state bloc but the referendum will be closely watched by many European political movements desperately wanting the same. Over half the Dutch population wants such a referendum and, according to their prime minister, so might the Czechs. Many of the far right parties in Europe have benefitted from increased dissatisfaction with an EU that appears too slow to reform and lacking answers to many of the continent’s dilemmas.
What happens on 23 June has huge implications then for Britain, the EU and indeed the international community. If Britain leaves, will others follow? Could it lead to the fracturing of the union? If the EU fails, what does it mean for all for the future of other free trade blocs? The financial markets are clearly fearful with the pound falling to a seven-year low.
The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, procured a deal from other EU leaders that essentially would if Britain votes to remain a member, establish yet another tier in the union. Already there is the 19-state Eurozone, the 26 Schengen states and Britain with its own special arrangements. Britain needs to decide whether it becomes semi-detached or fully detached.
Cameron’s deal secured the agreement that Britain would no longer be committed to an ever-closer union. There were some concessions on the issue of migrants and child benefits.
Yet the outcome of the vote on 23 June will in all likelihood be determined by the gut emotional sentiment of the British public not the minutiae of this latest deal. The anti-EU camp is accusing Cameron and pro-EU camp of pushing Project Fear, hyping a dystopian calamitous future for a non-EU Britain. The Europhiles claim that the “outers” want to make a leap into the unknown, with no idea as to what a post-EU Britain will look like.
Britain maybe the most Euroskeptic nation in the 28-state bloc but the referendum will be closely watched by many European political movements desperately wanting the same.Chris Doyle
On this the out brigade has few convincing answers. The extreme right has been playing to the xenophobic gallery whipping up fears of migrants and refugees and blaming everything on the EU. The other factor in the whole EU debate in Britain is an internal civil war within the Conservative Party that has lasted several decades and is back to boiling point. Six members of the cabinet as well as the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, are campaigning for Brexit.
Around half the Conservative MPs will be with them. Johnson’s decision was clearly made with his own Prime Ministerial ambitions in mind but others are more genuine and passionate. The vote will make or break Cameron’s tenure as prime minister and, although he claims that will remain as the leader in the event of vote for exit, his authority will surely be too diminished to continue not least as he would then have to negotiate a British withdrawal from an EU he wanted to remain in.
Britain has to determine what sort of state it wishes to be. Inside the EU, as the US and China among others prefer Britain to be, the UK can help shape the destiny of the European continent and drive through much needed reforms. Inside, it can still pose as a major world player keeping its permanent seat at the U.N. Security Council.
For most in the Middle East this is preferable not least the Palestinians who still pine for a stronger EU role in determining their future. Outside, Britain risks losing status and becoming a third tier state. The Scottish National Party would see a EU exit as the stepping stone to a new referendum arguing that Scotland should have the right to be part of the EU as an independent state.
But the EU cannot duck the challenge either. Unease with Brussels is not restricted to Britain. Major deep rooted significant reform is essential to make the union more democratic and more accountable to its citizens as well as more effective. Without this, the historic success of more than half a century of keeping Europe largely conflict free is at risk.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.