Ejmofor Boni Agbachi
After the end of the World War II, most European nations spearheaded by France and West Germany started a process to integrate their economies into a single market as a strategy to boost economic prosperity and deepen cooperation among European countries, in the spirit of a united Europe. This was aimed at fostering peace and stability on the continent. It started with a few countries and transformed to the European Economic Community (EEC), which has expanded into the European Union (EU) comprising 27 countries.
In spite of her initial reservations, Britain eventually joined the club in 1973 for better and profitable trade relations with her European neighbours. As soon as the country entered the Union, her membership became a source of serious national political discord and acrimonious debate polarising the country down the middle between the Euroskeptics (those who are opposed to the Union) and the Europhiles (those who are in support of the Union). Across the British political spectrum, the Tories (the Conservative Party) became the mouthpiece of the Euroskeptics, while the Labour Party and the Social Democratic Party became the voice of the Europhiles.
For the Euroskeptics, the country was giving too much of her sovereign powers to the EU to the detriment of her sovereignty. Europhiles, on the other hand, contend that the future of Britain was inextricably tied to her relationship with Europe and everything must be done to ensure that she remains a member of the Union. The political dichotomy arising from this debate made every election a bitter contest pitting both parties against each other and in the process putting enormous pressure on relations between the British government and EU. The crisis came to a head in 1975 and voters were asked in a referendum whether to stay or leave the then EEC and they voted to remain by a 67 per cent margin. The result of this referendum surprisingly failed to calm the restiveness and agitation of the British over the issue. The tension boiled over again in 1984 when the then conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, threatened to pull out the country over a row with EEC for the payment of “rebate” as compensation for the excess contributions made by Britain to the EEC budget. An agreement was eventually reached on the matter and Britain continued with her membership.
In June 2015, the tense relations between the EU and Britain again exploded into a major crisis forcing the government to conduct another referendum as the public clamour to stay or leave was increasing in its intensity in the run up to the 2015 general election. Following his re-election as Prime Minister, David Cameron, in fulfillment of his campaign promise, did another referendum to resolve the issue once and for all. Though a conservative, he campaigned for the “remain vote” but the remain campaign lost narrowly to the leave campaign. The defeat consumed his political career as he was forced to resign his position.
The burden of implementing the will of the British people, as expressed in the referendum, Brexit, fell on the succeeding Prime Minister, Theresa May. The Prime Minister, like the country she leads, is in a political deadlock as the deal she negotiated with the EU has been rejected twice by the parliament. The country is at the great risk of leaving the EU without an agreement, having triggered Article 50, which has the deadline of March 29, 2019 for Britain to exit the Union either with or without a deal. The EU, on the other hand, has made it clear that it will not renegotiate the Brexit deal, meaning that time is running out for Britain to get a deal. To leave the Union without a deal is like crashing out of a moving vehicle.
The British ambivalence and reluctance to the EU membership is not simply informed by any sound economic analysis. Rather it is symptomatic of a deeper undercurrent of the psychology of the people. Britain has projected so much power and influence over the years on the global stage that most people forget that it is an island nation with the typical insular mentality of most islanders that makes them to perceive themselves as exceptional and superior to the rest of the world. This mentality is further re-enforced in the case of Britain by her history of world domination spanning two centuries.
The British need to overcome this mental barrier and accept the fact that globalisation is here to stay, where both physical and mental obstacles are giving way to integrated economies, universal values, free movement of people, goods and services across national boundaries with lesser restrictions. This is the irreversible trajectory of the global economy. The only way to unlock the self-inflicted political logjam is for Britain to apply for an extension of the deadline for the purpose of having another referendum with the hope that the ugly experience of the present Brexit will enable the British people see the wisdom to vote to stay in the EU and submit to the authority of the Union, like their fellow European members. They should stop seeing themselves as special people that deserve special considerations for EU membership.
If on the other hand they still vote to leave, then they should muster the courage of their conviction to leave the EU without a deal and face the consequences of a “hard” Brexit.
• Agbachi is a public affairs analyst based in Abuja; 09095233277.