Britain´s year of decision

30.12.15 Publication:

will be a decision that shapes Britain, and its place in the world, for decades
to come, perhaps for the whole of the 21st century. It will be a
decision that also shapes the European Union, at least if the decision is a
negative one. And yet, despite the decision’s importance and indeed imminence,
very few British voters have yet really thought about which way they are going
to vote in the referendum they face about whether to remain a member of the EU
or whether to leave.

In theory, the referendum might not happen until 2017.
But in practice, everyone in British politics or the media expects it to take
place during 2016, possibly as early as June. So just six months away could be
an epoch-making, strategic choice about which few people have thought.

It is not that there hasn’t been any debate: there has
been plenty. But that debate has so far mainly been one between different
members of what might be called the political and media priesthood. The debate
about Europe has not yet properly reached the consciousness of ordinary voters.
What has reached their consciousness has been a different debate, one about

With most national referendums in European
democracies, the main risk is that voters make their choice based on whether
they love or hate the current government rather than the issue at hand. With
Britain’s vote, the risk is different: it is that the choice will be made not
about Europe but about immigration, a subject that is related to the EU but is
just a subset of it.

The reason that this could happen is, first of all,
because people care much more about immigration than they do about the EU. It
is visible to them, in their own streets, shops and hospitals, whereas the EU
is an abstract idea. Thanks to the decision by Tony Blair’s Labour government
in 1997 to make immigration to Britain easier from all countries in the world,
and then in 2004 to permit workers from the EU’s 10 new member states, mainly
in Central and Eastern Europe, to come immediately to work in Britain rather
than waiting seven years, British people feel that they have had a lot of
immigration during the past 15 years.

The second reason, however, is that David Cameron,
Britain’s prime minister, has made immigration from the EU the most visible and
controversial part of his negotiations with the other 27 EU countries. He has
other demands, but his most headline-grabbing one is his desire to limit EU
citizens’ right to claim welfare benefits when they first come to live in
Britain. In fact, not many do, but the perception among many voters is that a
lot of migrants come to the UK because they think our welfare state is
generous. (It isn’t, apart from our free healthcare.)

One can argue that Mr Cameron has focused on this
issue of immigrants and welfare for smart political reasons: immigration is an
issue understood by voters, so if he can claim to have made progress in increasing
British control over the topic then perhaps it will be easier for him to
persuade people to vote to stay in the EU. But that is a high risk gamble: by
placing virtually all his political capital on this one aspect of EU
membership, he risks coming out of the negotiation looking like a failure and
so making a vote to leave more likely.

The whole referendum initiative has been a gamble by
Mr Cameron. He took the gamble because during the worst of the country’s
post-financial-crisis recession he felt under pressure from within his own
Conservative Party and from the rise in the polls of the anti-EU and
anti-immigrant UK Independence Party. The pressure from inside his party
remains strong, but UKIP is now declining as a political force.

What will happen? January and February will see a
tough negotiation between Britain and the other 27 EU member states. The key
issue will be whether they can find a compromise on immigrants and welfare that
increases British control without clashing with treaty obligations on free
movement and non-discrimination. If a compromise is reached, the referendum
will be called immediately. Mr Cameron does not want to waste time.

He is gambling his own political future, after all, as
well as the future of the UK. If Britain votes to remain a member of the EU
(which, on balance, is likely), then Mr Cameron will look like a strong and
successful leader. If Britain votes to leave, then he will have to resign,
immediately. Scotland will then demand a fresh referendum about whether to
leave the UK, and most likely would go. Britain would then commence at least
two years of negotiation about the terms of its departure and new relationship
with the EU.

Most important, though, would be the political impact.
By voting to leave, Britain would in effect have kicked its closest allies in
the teeth. Only one political leader in those allied countries would be
pleased: Marine Le Pen, of France’s Front National. She would begin plotting