As the British referendum campaign on whether or not to leave the European Union enters its final weeks, the debate is becoming increasingly heated, and in many respects more absurd.
The ‘out’ camp has claimed that the bureaucrats of Brussels have the same ambition as Adolf Hitler: to create a European super-state, only by stealth rather than conquest. Their opponents have retorted that the only leaders who want to see Britain quit the EU are Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
To an anxious international audience it appears that the participants are engaged in a passionate domestic squabble, with little heed to the consequences for the rest of the world. Indeed, when the leader of the world’s most powerful nation made it clear that the United States wanted Britain to stay in the EU, those campaigning for ‘Brexit’ attacked President Obama for interfering, and implied that his part-Kenyan ancestry gave him an anti-colonial, and therefore anti-British, bias.
Leaving this hint of racism aside, the referendum debate could be regarded as an example of typically extravagant British political theatre, if only the consequences of ‘Brexit’ were not so serious. Every respected national and international economic institution, from the Confederation of British Industry to the International Monetary Fund, has warned that withdrawal from the EU will lead to a decline in British growth, higher unemployment and restricted trade, with another recession on the cards. Such an outcome in the world’s fifth largest economy cannot fail to have effects abroad. The leaders of all Asia’s major economies, noting this, have been unanimous in urging Britain to remain in the EU.
The response of the Brexiteers has been an airy dismissal of the economic arguments. Precisely because Britain is a major economy, they claim, it will be easy to do new trade deals around the world. Freed from the shackles imposed by Brussels, British business can turn away from the stagnation of Europe to centres of dynamic growth such as India and China. Detail tends to be lacking, however, because those who want to quit Europe know that they stand a better chance if they deal in emotions rather than facts.
The core of the ‘out’ campaign is a call to ‘take back control’ of Britain’s borders and put an end to ‘unrestricted immigration’. Though it is only citizens of the other 27 EU countries that have the right to enter Britain, and there are weighty arguments that their arrival has in fact boosted the British economy, such rhetoric is aimed in part at voters who still consider anyone of Indian, Pakistani or Afro-Caribbean descent to be an ‘immigrant’. The former mayor of London, Boris Johnson, a colourful opportunist who has seized leadership of the ‘out’ movement (and the one who drew attention to Obama’s heritage as well as invoking the name of Hitler), gave the game away when he said: ‘We used to run the biggest empire the world has ever seen.’
Johnson was seeking to appeal to those who wish to wind the clock back to an era when Britain was an imperial power, with colonies whose populations stayed at home and served the mother country. Some Brexit advocates have envisioned a renewed closeness with the Commonwealth, but it soon becomes obvious that they mean the ‘old’ (white) Commonwealth, principally Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The most dishonest argument of all has been made to voters with ties to the subcontinent, who have been told that a halt to European immigration could mean fewer restrictions on arrivals from south Asia. Those restrictions are imposed by Britain, and have nothing to do with the EU.
The recklessness of the anti-EU campaign is clearest when one contemplates the probable political consequences of a British exit. Not only would Britain itself be in danger of breaking up, with overwhelmingly pro-European Scottish Nationalists sure to demand another referendum on independence, but narrow nationalists across the EU would be encouraged to push for the withdrawal of their own countries, and the largest international trading bloc could begin to crumble.
The world economy is fragile enough without the potential disruption that Brexit would cause, but the implications for international co-operation would be just as unfortunate. In Asia, where such organisations as the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have spent decades seeking to foster partnership and trust, it would set the most discouraging of examples. When Britain votes on June 23, there will be much more at stake than simply cocking a snook at Brussels.