Britain’s year of decision

30.12.15 Publication:

It 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 immigration.

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 FREXIT too.