Is Europe sleepwalking into Brexit?
In just over two months the British will hold their referendum on the EU membership. As it turns out, the decision will take place right in the middle of the European Football Championship in France, on a Thursday, immediately after the group matches. Polls indicate that advocates for and opponents of a Brexit are currently neck and neck. At the same time, about 10–20 per cent of the population still seem to be undecided even though most arguments are already on the table.
Currently, just over 500 million people live in the European Union, 65 million of whom are British citizens. If more than half of them wants to stay in the Union that would amount to more than 30 million Brits.
Over the last few weeks, thousands of Brits have started to fight for the goal to remain in the European Union. They have taken to the street and are going now from door to door and try to convince their fellow citizens to vote for their country’s continued EU membership on June 23. Social media, for example, gives a good impression of their efforts. Don’t these British deserve all the support from their fellow citizens from the European Continent and Ireland?
Recently, two member states of the European Union have been perfect examples for the harm political inactivity can cause. In Poland, only about 50 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in the election of a new parliament in October. Now, the Polish have a government that tries to paralyse the Polish constitutional tribunal, force public-sector media to take the government’s stance and, hence, do away with the separation of powers and the rule of law. And in the Netherlands, the turnout for the referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement a few days ago was only about 30 %. Nationalists and anti-Europeans had opposed the agreement. In the end, they won with a majority of more than 60 % of all votes cast, mainly because too many citizens just stayed at home and didn’t exercise their right to vote. Isn’t it time to stand up against the new nationalism in the European Union?
Thinking that the British referendum only concerns the British is a disastrous misconception. Maybe even a fatal one.
Disinterest, lethargy and a lack in political involvement are the ingredients to cause another European disaster. This one, however, would be of a truly historic dimension. No citizen of the Union can seriously believe that a Brexit would not affect him/her personally. European unity would be reversed for the first time since 1945. This would inflict a severe wound to the EU Motto “United in Diversity”, and it is not yet possible to assess its healing chances and consequences. A vote in favour of Britain’s withdrawal would probably lead to years of negotiations on its conditions. This would be poisonous to a further recovery of Europe’s economy, let alone an economic boost. In political terms, a vote for Brexit would additionally buoy nationalists up in all corners of the Union — just more than nine months prior to the French presidential elections, with Front National having become the strongest political force in the latest regional elections in France. Moreover, the EU’s reputation, and hence its impact on a global scale, would be severely damaged in case of a Brexit. No doubt, the British themselves would be even worse off. In economic terms, they might lose out when negotiating a withdrawal agreement with about 440 million Europeans. The United Kingdom would shrink to its true size: less than 1 % of the world’s population contributing to less than 3 % of global GNP — with a downward trend. Such a size and such limited resources would, more than ever, provoke questions on how legitimate the permanent membership of the UN Security Council still is, particularly as its composition seems to be obsolete even today. In strategic terms, Great Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union would represent a significant step towards its own marginalisation in the 21st century. In geopolitical terms, a Brexit would be in one category with the Suez Crisis in 1956. None of this is in Britain’s or Europe’s interest.
So what could be done by Europeans from the Continent and from Ireland in order to help to avoid it?
One group in particular should have already exercised much more political leadership in this matter which is so decisive for the future of Europe in the 21st century; yet they have remained surprisingly silent: top politicians in the other 27 member states of the European Union. A speech or a quote here, an interview or a press conference there. But passionate, consistently strong, courageous and progressing commitment to Britain’s staying a member of the Union — in spite of all criticism one might level at them? Not really. Pretty much silence. Pretty much inaction. Or is there simply too little media coverage? Do European top politicians really understand what is at stake for the European Union and which historic responsibility they are currently bearing?
And what is the European civil society doing? What are European citizens outside of Great Britain doing for the British to stay a member of the Union?
There would be numerous ways and means to get involved. The very first steps would be getting informed about the possible consequences of a Brexit and contemplating one’s own attitude towards it. Followed by a public statement. The Brits themselves are currently showing us how it’s done. They are wearing t-shirts with the slogan “Stronger In”, posting banners on social media, launching websites — gathering all arguments in favour of Britain staying a member of the Union. Discussing the topic is the order of the day — whether it is privately on a Sunday afternoon with the family or in public, whether it is in reality or on the web. Citizens from the European continent could do all these things, too. And in fact they have started. Recently, a wonderfully sentimental website has been launched: pleasedontgouk.com which features the slogan “Hug a Brit”. People are asked to hug a British friend and send in the picture with a comment. The photos are then published on the website. On-line petitions on Great Britain’s staying a member of the EU would also be conceivable. Not to mention generous donations to British organisations committed to the British EU membership. Last but not least, diverse relations from twin towns, working relations and friendships could tip the scales. Creativity should not know any limits anyway. There is still hope that citizens of the European Union will wake up early enough and get involved before it is too late.
A best case scenario would involve a huge European civil movement in favour of the British staying members of the Union, maybe common demonstrations spanning across nations in many European cities just before the referendum with the intention to send one single clear message to the people of Great Britain: We want you to stay with us! We want you to stay a part of our European Union.
Of course, 2016 is not 1914. It’s not 1933, either. And it is obvious that this is not the beginning of another world war starting in Europe. What we might be facing, however, could be the most negative sea change in Europe since 1945. In such a situation, nobody should sleepwalk. Nobody should be able to say in retrospect: “Oh, if only we had…”. And there is no need to doubt that Europeans will be able to reform and to build an even better European Union than today. The people in Great Britain who are fighting for their country’s staying a member of the European Union in these days deserve all the respect, appreciation and support all other citizens of the Union can muster. What are we waiting for? A Brexit would be one of the biggest own goals in British and European history. One would rather see England win the European Championship on penalties in Paris on July 10 than watch the British leave the European Union two weeks earlier on 23 June.
P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @ OliHSchmidt