The UK’s EU Referendum: Personal Cards on the Table

Tomorrow, the UK will vote over whether to remain in or leave the European Union. It is a decision that, either way, will not be easily reversible in the lifetime of those who vote. Here, I set out some of the implications — ranging from the central principle to issues of domestic and international stability — that for me, propel a clear “remain” vote. In short, a vote to leave the EU is an attempt to try to “take control” of politics in a global political marketplace in which a simple national sense of control is impossible. In fact, pursuing control through a strategy of isolation and nationalist retreat stands to further undermine the “common good” in ways that stand to plunge us further out of control, financially and politically, with potential global consequences. In this sense, the Brexit debate and choice has some parallels in the choices the US people will make in the next presidential election.

Cooperation Versus Isolation

At the heart of the decision is whether to be a member of Europe or a narrow “little Britain.” If it really has to be a choice, I would rather be internationalist than nationalist. But there is a key fact getting lost in the debate: It does not have to be a choice. If the UK remains part of the EU, I can be both European and British (or Irish or whatever), or just British (or Irish or whatever). They are not mutually exclusive options. 

In contrast, the proposed new singular British identity smacks of English Nationalism — an English Nationalism that violates the principle of English self-restraint that underpins the UK’s current constitutional settlement. Indeed, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland seem set to vote “remain.” And English Nationalism has often had an ugly far-right face that the “leave” campaign is now tarnished with.

While the remain campaign has focused on “project fear” — scaring people about the consequences of a leave vote — it has failed to address the choice between inclusion and cooperation on one hand, and exclusion and narrow nationalism on the other. That is the real choice dividing the electorate. In personal terms, this choice appears stark: I don’t want to be part of the country that the Brexiteers want to create. I don’t feel it has space for me or my beliefs, or commitments. I feel this much more deeply than I ever thought possible — and it goes way beyond any “Europeanism” I might espouse.

There are also other things I care about which seem calamitously affected by Brexit. None of them have been clearly articulated through the remain campaign’s project fear, but are important to set out.

Immigration and National “Control”

First, if the leave campaign hopes to achieve a limit to immigration, it will take years to untangle who has a right to stay and who does not in a population in which many European citizens have lived for years. Phased-in and phased-out forms of residence, and changes in voting rights and working rights could split up the entitlements within families. It would necessitate new forms of marriage and civil partnership registration, and setting up new visa processes for students, travelers, and those who work temporarily in cross-country jobs (the planes between London, Edinburgh, Manchester, and even Belfast are full of commuters). Is this what we really want to do? Is this who we want to be? Is this how we want to deal with marriages, holidays, holiday houses, labor, education, young people? Curbing immigration and introducing new visa regimes will surely create reciprocal visa conditions in other European countries.

Second, what if we find that common legislative solutions are indeed needed to address a very British set of interests — for example, falling fish stocks, pollution and environmental calamity that causes flooding, common safety standards across cars manufactured to ensure ease of import and export? Well, in the Brexit world, we’ll have to do without or else just adopt the EU’s anyway (but without any influence in their drafting).

National Instability and the Irish Peace Process

On the BBC’s Radio 4 the other day, a reporter stood on the cliffs of Dover opining that this was as close to another European country that you could be in the UK. Well, that’s actually wrong. In fact, there is a European country so close that you could stand with one foot in the UK and one foot over a common land-border — Ireland, of course. Trains between Dublin and Belfast take two hours (less than many a daily commute in London), and a trip from Belfast to the now-invisible border is only 40 minutes. Over £1 billion in trade crosses the Irish border every week. The Irish economy is so important to the UK that at the height of the financial crises, quietly and with no domestic political fuss, it unilaterally bailed Ireland out despite having no obligation to do so.

In no small part because of these close ties, a Brexit would leave the Northern Irish peace process in a mess, which is reason enough to reject leaving the EU. The common European context was vital to the peace process and underwrites it still. Since 1995, there have been three EU-funded PEACE programs, contributing €1.3 billion to peacebuilding in Northern Ireland. A fourth amounting to £270 million is in progress. These have funded infrastructure, business, political reconciliation, and civil society projects, all of which have striven to address the legacy of the conflict and create momentum for the peace process, with considerable success. The UK electorate pay little attention to the Irish dimension — like the BBC reporter, they tend to forget the UK’s land border. But they do so at their peril.

Beyond Northern Ireland, the entire UK devolution framework is threatened by a Brexit. As in the national security context, EU law is wound into the constitutional fabric of the Acts of Parliament that establish the devolution of power to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland — all of which were subject to popular referenda in “we the people” moments. Picking apart these statutes across the UK risks unraveling the UK’s currently precarious constitutional settlement further.

International Instability

The potential Brexit is also likely to cause huge shifts in our current national political constellation. It is more than likely that there will be political fall-out starting the morning after any leave vote, and it’s almost certain that Prime Minister David Cameron would go. This means that the UK would need to undertake one its most critical international negotiations at a time of unprecedented internal political upheaval and constitutional crisis.

Just as frighteningly, if we endorse the Brexit arguments in a leave vote, we will align ourselves and empower Donald Trump in his anti-immigration rhetoric; we will empower Russia in its “go it alone” macho mentality; and we will empower all of those who will see opportunity in the EU’s and Britain’s new moment of weakness — all those who reject the idea of a global “common good.” Standing alone in the new global political marketplace will not be fun. It is already a hugely dangerous place to be.

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So why are apparently reasonable people considering a leave vote? They have lost out in austerity; they feel they have no control; they long for a cozier club to be a member of. But it is time now to wake up and smell the coffee: the world has screwed up financially and is in hard times, the world is uncertain, and clubs are created around compromising over courses of action — something the UK has forgotten how to do internally, as much as externally.

Vote Brexit and none of this changes. Personally speaking, I don’t need project fear to make me scared on all these fronts. Vote leave and we ain’t seen nothing yet. 

About the Author(s)

Christine Bell

Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Edinburgh Law School Follow her on Twitter (@christinebelled).