'Brexit': How on Earth did it come to this?
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As an historic summit on Britain’s future got underway in Brussels last week, the UK’s Sun tabloid led with a report about “two randy European officials” who were “caught romping in a loo”, under the punny headline: “How was it for EU, darling?” Cue the Great British Brexit debate.
Until recently, I had been in stubborn denial about the prospect of an “In/Out” referendum on whether Britain should remain in the European Union or leave the club it joined over 40 years ago to stake out on its own.
It’s not only that I couldn’t fathom the notion that millions of Britons might actually vote to jump the EU ship in four months' time.
I also willfully refused to accept, despite all the empirical evidence to the contrary, that there would even be a referendum at all.
Now that we have an actual date – June 23 – for the fateful vote staring us in the face, I am still slow to grasp the reality of what looms.
Seen from the European mainland, Britain’s “Brexit” contortions assume the surreal contours of a Salvador Dali painting.
In the words of one art museum curator describing Dali’s masterwork, the Persistence of Memory: “Hard objects become inexplicably limp, time bends, and metal attracts ants like rotting flesh.”
A toxic fusion of hard-right Tory Euroscepticism, tabloid one-upmanship and a British penchant for exceptionalism has given rise to a referendum that never had to be – even if it presently seems like it was preordained.
An island nation
British Euroscepticism, to be sure, didn’t materialize overnight.
When it comes to Europe, the island nation has always been “home alone”, in a sense – taking a perverse pride in a schizophrenic view of itself as detached from, yet intertwined with, the destiny of its continental neighbors.
Over the past 40 years, polls show support for the European project waxing and waning, with pro-European sentiment dipping to its lowest level in the early 1980s – around 30 percent - before hitting a peak of around 70 percent a decade later, the early 1990s.
At various brief intervals since 1999, a Brexit has been more popular than staying in the EU. More recently, the "remain" camp has seen a resurgence.
The conventional wisdom these days is that David Cameron had no choice when, bowing to mounting pressure from the Eurosceptic right of his Tory party, he executed an about-face and announced an In/Out referendum in January 2013.
Defying the will of their party over Europe had been the kiss of death for past British leaders, from Margaret Thatcher to John Major. Cameron presumably wanted to avert a similar showdown.
Until he found himself boxed into a corner by his Brussels-bashing Tory peers, Cameron had staunchly resisted a referendum.
'Banging on about Europe'
In his first year in office, Cameron “whipped” his own MPs into opposing a referendum on Britain in Europe (though he would support a more limited referendum on the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, which never came to pass).
In his first party conference as Tory leader, in October 2006, Cameron scolded members who alienated voters by “banging on about Europe”. Far wiser, he declared, would be for the Tories to claim the political centre, becoming champions of a “new spirit of social responsibility.”
Speaking in Brussels in June 2012 – in the very same building where last week’s EU summit was held – Cameron said: “The problem with an In/Out referendum is that it only gives people those two choices.”
The remarks prompted outrage on the right, and he was forced to backpedal. The rest is history.
The EU deal that underpins the referendum campaign marks a further distancing from a Europe that Britain has already forsaken in spirit, if not in legality.
The Britain that will vote in June on whether to “remain” in the EU has already opted out of the 19-member euro zone and the passport-free Schengen free-movement zone.
Nor has Westminster ever ratified the EU’s fundamental charter of rights. British MPs have exempted their realm from cooperation in many areas of EU justice and crime-fighting, while Cameron himself pulled his Tories out of the conservative EPP grouping in the European Parliament.
A vote to leave Britain would be the culmination of a decades-long British retreat from the continent.
As some commentators have pointed out, Britain, if it opted out, would be withdrawing from a European entity that is more fractious than ever, an entity for which ever closer disunion has been the guiding principle of late.
Britain’s Brexit debate has lent grist to would-be copycats across Europe’s populist landscape. France’s far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, has lavished praise on Cameron for demanding special treatment for Britain and sees a “Frexit” – a French exit from the EU – as not just plausible, but necessary.
Poland, Italy and Hungary are just a few other countries waiting in the exit wings.
Polls show that up to half of British voters have made up their minds already, either for or against Brexit. No amount of cajoling or persuasion will change their position. That leaves about half who are either on the fence or have no idea where they stand. These are the people to whom Cameron will be making his pitch to “remain” in as he embarks on one of the riskiest votes in his nation’s history.
Salvador Dali described his fantastic visions as "hand painted dream photographs” – with monstrous creatures, insect-like eyelashes and oozing tongues.
Britain’s Brexit debate, featuring a vast array of bogeymen and monstrous creatures, is worthy of the master of the surreal.
He might call it, “The Persistence of Euroscepticism”.