The UK and Europe

Breaking up is easy to do

Tony Barber / Oct 2015


‘No’ to the EU risks the end of the UK. Do the Tories care?

The European Union is useless. The European Union is dangerous. Leave the European Union, and put the ‘Great’ back in Great Britain!

At their annual conference in Manchester on October 4-7, members of Britain’s ruling Conservative Party had a lot of fun telling each other this sort of stuff.

But they had less to say about the implications of ‘Brexit’ – British exit from the EU – for the unity of the United Kingdom. They had even less, in fact nothing, to say about the damaging consequences of Brexit for the political health and international standing of Europe as a whole.

That last point is depressing, but utterly unsurprising. Over the last five to 10 years, the content and tone of British political debate have become astonishingly insular. The post-Tony Blair Labour Party and the Scottish Nationalist Party must take as much blame for that as the Conservatives.

However, the first point is not only disturbing but slightly weird. The formal title of the Conservative party, though you rarely hear it used these days, is “the Conservative and Unionist Party”. That is to say, the party is officially committed to preserving, protecting and promoting the unity of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as one state – the United Kingdom.

If you had been in Manchester listening to the rank-and-file Conservative rants about the EU, you would have had trouble figuring that out.

The UK’s unity hangs by a thread on the outcome of a referendum that will be held before the end of 2017 on Britain’s EU membership. If the result is ‘No’, it will be because a majority of English voters – who vastly outnumber voters in the rest of the UK – reject EU membership. Conservative voters would undoubtedly make up the bulk of the ‘No’ vote.

Yet people in Scotland – and, for that matter, Wales and Northern Ireland – have a broadly positive view of the EU. It is all but certain that a ‘No’ vote would trigger a second referendum on Scottish independence. If such a referendum were to take place, it is likely that the desire of a majority of Scots to stay in the EU would produce a vote to break away from the UK.

Hey presto! The Conservative and Unionist Party, by playing with fire on the EU question, would have brought about the dissolution of that same union, the UK, which they proclaim, in their organisation’s official name, to be the fundamental reason for their existence.

Does the anti-EU Conservative man or woman in the street understand this? Some do, some don’t.

The ones who do are English people who would take a chance on letting Scotland go. They are by no means fanatics, but they seem tempted by a John Bull vision of England riding high under the flag of St George. The ones who don’t are middle-of-the-road English men and women, entirely decent people who just haven’t given much thought to the unsettling implications of Brexit.

These implications go beyond the probable break-up of the UK. They include the danger that the carefully constructed political agreements that have kept the peace in Northern Ireland since 1998 will fall apart. The Irish Republic’s government in Dublin knows this all too well and is deeply worried about it. That is why the office of the Taoiseach, the Irish prime minister, has a special unit devoted to the risks of Brexit.

But there are other dangers, too. Put simply, Britain’s departure from the EU would severely disrupt the 28-member Union’s internal political balance. It would make Germany’s supremacy in the EU even more emphatic than it is today. From the Netherlands and Italy to the Czech Republic and Germany itself, not many EU countries would feel comfortable about that.

By establishing a precedent that a country can actually leave the EU (something no state has done since the 1957 Treaty of Rome), Brexit would also be a source of inspiration to anti-EU forces in other member-states, especially France. I can see Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, licking her lips at the prospect.

Moreover, Brexit – if followed by the UK’s break-up – would give a boost to separatism elsewhere in Europe, notably the Catalan independence movement. No EU government regards that as desirable.

Lastly, the diminution of the British state and the resulting instability in Europe would strengthen the view of non-European powers – the US, China, Brazil, India, Russia and others – that Europe is a fading, almost irrelevant force on the world stage.

In short, if Britain left the EU, the UK in its present form would disappear and Europe would become a much troubled place. Can this really be what sober-minded Conservative Party voters want?


Tony Barber

Tony Barber

October 2015

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