The Panama Papers continue to haunt British Prime Minister David Cameron even as he tirelessly campaigns to keep Great Britain in the European Union (EU) ahead of the national in-out referendum on June 23. Earlier, in April, a ComRes poll found nearly half of Britons critical of Cameron’s handling of his financial affairs, calling it “morally repugnant,” after the Tory leader initially ducked and weaved instead of coming clean about how he profited from his father’s offshore interests. Cameron has not seen the back-end of this blowback yet. A more recent survey by the same pollsters has him badly trailing former London mayor Boris Johnson on trustworthiness. Only 21 percent of those polled thought they could trust Cameron over Johnson on the Brexit debate.
Meanwhile, with the referendum promising to be a squeaker, Johnson, charismatic poster-politician of the Vote Leave campaign, is pulling out all the stops to convince Britons that Project Europe was a flawed idea from the start. In a May 15 interview with The Sunday Telegraph, he stoked controversy by comparing the EU to the Roman Empire, Hitler and Napoleon in their attempts to unify Europe. Each empire eventually faltered because there was “no underlying loyalty to the idea of Europe and no single authority that anybody respected.” The man touted as Cameron’s successor further blamed the EU for “causing this massive democratic void” by asking members states to subordinate their national identities before some shapeless common good.
The fruit of Franco-German cooperation, a prototype EU first emerged in 1950 to prevent future wars in Europe. The idea was to pool the steel and coal resources of six major European nations and tightly interlink their economies so any aggressor among them risked mutual financial ruin. Seven years later, the Treaty of Rome formalised the European Economic Community (EEC) with its common market, while the Schengen “borderless Europe” Agreement followed in 1985. Today, the EU comprises 28 members states and their 500 million-plus people.
British politicians initially passed up the Treaty of Rome because they were suspicious of a compact leading to an ‘ever closer union’ with the mainland, politically or economically. Their tune changed in the 1960s, however, when the EEC surged to growth rates beyond those of America while Great Britain grappled with economic anemia. Negotiations to join the EU took well over a decade, though, courtesy of French leader Charles de Gaulle who repeatedly vetoed British requests while in office. De Gaulle, for his part, feared an obedient ally of Washington would diminish his grand scheme of making the EU a global superpower equal to the US and USSR.
Indeed, Britons are not the only ones sceptical of the EU’s future utility. An Ipsos MORI poll in May sampling EU nationals from nine countries uncovered that 48 percent believe a UK exit will trigger the ‘domino effect’ of other states plotting their own way out. Since Great Britain is the EU’s second largest economy after Germany, it does not surprise that captains of both industry and vast armies are trying to scare Britons into voting for the ‘Remain’ camp. US President Barack Obama warned last month that free-agent Britain would start at “the back of the queue” for trade deals. Bank of England Governor Mark Carney also foresees calamitous times should fellow Britons vote for Brexit, fearing it will “slam the brakes on growth, push up unemployment and stoke inflation.”
Europe’s migrant crisis fuelled by over a million refugees from Syria and elsewhere thronging the shores of Greece and then trekking overland in endless columns has also exposed the EU’s inability to make decisions as one unit of government. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the first leader to part ways with established protocols on asylum, rolling out the red carpet unconditionally for refugees in a gesture filled with humanity, but disastrous for the poorer states in their path northwards to Bavaria. Consequently, fears of buckling under the deluge forced some like Hungary and Macedonia to seal their borders.
This crisis also spotlit sharp divides among member states on how to best handle the influx. Great Britain resisted EU attempts to enforce a migrant quota on each country, calling it “blackmail,” while egalitarian Denmark decided all refugees had to surrender their valuables as part of the asylum process. Hence, through their ordeal, the hapless souls fleeing war or poverty at home confirmed the EU to be “a confederation of different peoples whose varying experiences and attitudes cannot be homogenised,” wrote The Telegraph columnist Janet Daley in January. Criticism of the EU’s haphazard approach to incomers hit peak decibels in March, when a tentative “one in, one out” deal with Turkey drew condemnations from both Amnesty International and the UN for flouting the Geneva Convention on refugees.
To his credit, Cameron in February tried to broker a ‘special status’ for Great Britain within the union with some success. He won compromises on migrant work-benefits and a greater role for parliament in retooling Eurozone laws applicable to the UK. Johnson and fellow Tory MPs nevertheless called the deal “thin gruel” and unsatisfactory. At least half of them, including six ministers in Cameron’s cabinet, are pushing for Brexit. Money also features prominently in the debate. Britons contribute a little over 13 percent of the annual EU budget, or around one billion pounds per month, with little control over how Brussels spends this money. Besides, Eurosceptics in the UK grow weary of bailing out weak EU economies like Greece that forsook fiscal discipline to provide social benefits beyond their means.
New British Election Survey numbers released mid-May find the ‘Leave’ campaign edging ahead for the first time since polling began, and set to win by a wafer-thin margin among Britons most likely to vote. If the EU does become a slow-moving train wreck after Brexit, is NATO next on the chopping block? All bets are off if Donald Trump, who calls the military alliance “obsolete and extremely expensive,” becomes the next US president.
The writer is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist.