Britain and Europe

In the midst of the shaking of the continent of Europe as Russia invaded Crimea, and tore it off from Ukraine as peremptorily as Nikita Krushchev had previously attached it to that country; and even as Britain has played a substantial role in marshalling the European position on the issue, the British government has also taken time off to continue its preoccupation with what has now come to be called Brexit.

This acronym relates, as is probably well known by now, to the promise made by British Prime Minister Cameron in January last year, that if the Conservative Party wins the next general elections, due on May 7, 2015, then the returned Conservative government will hold a referendum to seek the opinion of the British people as to whether the country should remain, or  renegotiate its position in the European Union.

To outside observers, Prime Minister Cameron’s decision must seem odd indeed. For one thing, the notion of a referendum is not a normal strategy of the British, though it is well to recall that then Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson did hold one in 1975 as a form of endorsement of Britain’s entry into the then European Common Market. But he, no doubt, was hoping to settle the matter once and for all.

Prime Minister Cameron, however, has obviously been concerned that a section of his own parliamentary party and Conservative supporters appear to be still unconvinced about the benefits of British membership in the EU. And his view will have been reinforced by what appears to be the inclination of Conservative Party members, or followers, to support the efforts of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a veritable offshoot, or some would say fringe group, of the Conservatives, which insists that membership of the EU is not advantageous to Britain.

Cameron will no doubt feel that his 2013 decision has been justified by what seems to be a fairly close division between supporters and opponents of EU membership. For a most recent poll  (early this month) has indicated that 42% of those responding would wish to stay in, 37% advocate giving up membership, and an impressive 16%  abstain from venturing on the matter.

The Prime Minister must have also been influenced by the fact that pressure on his own party by the UKIP has not only been inducing concern within his ranks, as UKIP’s leader, Nick Farage, has been insisting on “upping the ante” in terms of Conservative Party sentiment. Cameron would surmise that this could well lead to a movement of Conservative supporters to the UKIP, as the activities of the UKIP leader have achieved more and more public prominence as time has gone on.

This factor will have become more prominent by the decision of the Liberal Democrats’ leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, a fervent advocate of continued EU membership, to engage the UKIP leader, Nick Farage, in two – so far – debates, which have not really diminished the strength of pro-UKIP support.

Oddly enough, the strong position taken by British government, as part of the EU collectively, on the Ukraine virtual civil war, and then on the Russian government’s snatching of Crimea, does not appear to have enhanced support for the British Government, and therefore for the pro-staying in coalition, or for the Conservative Party as such.

For it did appear, in the midst of the Ukranian confrontation, that the British were determined to take a leading position on facing up to President Putin; and on insisting that the EU had, and has, a legitimate right to be a kind of patron of evolving pro-EU sentiment among countries that were once within the Soviet Union’s sphere. For the EU this seems to imply that it has a legitimate role in enhancing its diplomatic strength, through enhancing its organized or institutional presence in global affairs generally, as a physically enlarged player.

This kind of sentiment is one which the Conservative Party under David Cameron, has seemed to advance. The Conservatives, in particular, have long felt stung by the sentiment expressed, in December of 1962, by the former American Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, that with the disintegration of the British Empire, Britain had “lost an empire” but had “not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role – that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States, a role based on being head of a ‘commonwealth’ …this role is about played out.”

The growing rearrangement of post-Soviet Europe has seemed to push the Conservatives in the direction of fuller participation in the institutional reconstruction of the continent as a whole, even as they understood the hesitancies of some of their core constituency. It has been bolstered by statements by the significant European Union states that more or less insist that Britain’s involvement in the EU cannot be half-hearted.

Thus, in response to Cameron’s referendum decision, the Germans, through their defence minister have made it clear that a British departure from Europe “would diminish UK influence in NATO.” And France’s President Hollande has made it clear that that Britain cannot have “à la carte membership” in the EU: that it cannot choose some elements of the EU and leave out others. It has to be a full-time, not part-time, member of the EU.

It is noticeable too, that the Australian Prime Minister, in speaking on the issue, has felt it necessary to say that “effective membership” of the EU “enhances Britain’s effective power.” This, no doubt being an indication that Britain’s full participation in world affairs through the EU can no longer be substituted for by membership of the Commonwealth. For the Australians increasingly recognize that collectively organized European allies are critical to their own diplomacy in the changing geopolitical configuration in Asia, where Australia, even as a Commonwealth member, now faces the implications of its location.

Of course, David Cameron, even in the face of all this, knows that he must still deal with isolationist sentiment in Britain, even as his party may favour continued membership of the EU. It is in that context that his recent playing of the immigration card against certain European immigrants must be understood. He will be hoping to hold the sentiment as he battles to win the general election, and undoubtedly, then proceed to play to negotiate a stronger hand within the EU itself, rather than outside of it.

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