Prime Minister David Cameron made an unusual promise to the British electorate in 2013. Under pressure from voters who had turned against the European Union, he said that if the Conservatives won a majority in the 2015 election, his government would negotiate a better arrangement with the EU and then hold a referendum to decide whether Britain should leave.
This week he fired the opening shot in the referendum campaign with an hour-long speech and a public letter to the EU requesting changes. The referendum will take place towards the end of 2017, which means that the British will be arguing about their future for many months. Cameron considers this a historic turning point. "This is a huge decision for our country," he said. "Perhaps the biggest we will make in our lifetimes."
It will be an In-Out referendum, with no ambiguities and a one-question ballot: "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" Lines are being drawn. At the moment there's an In organization called Britain Stronger in Europe and there are two Out campaigns, Vote Leave and Leave.EU. (Leave. EU claims 265,199 members.) Most political parties remain officially neutral but the Conservatives have an In campaign called Conservatives For Britain. The Bow Group, a Conservative think tank, supports Leave.EU. The Daily Express and the Daily Mail are backing Out. Many believe that withdrawing from the EU would disturb the status of the City of London's financial community, so the banks are pro-In.
Passionate factions support each side, Out being more passionate than In. The Out faction claims that withdrawing will save every British family a notable sum in household expenses, save the nation a fortune in EU membership fees and save businesses from the EU's burdensome and often unnecessary rules. The In people think that leaving the EU would risk the UK's prosperity and diminish its stature in world affairs.
Worse, it could lead to calamitous trade barriers between the U.K. and the EU.
Cameron wants the EU to respect national parliaments, protect the City of London's role, and abolish the rules that force Britain to pay welfare and health benefits for immigrants from EU countries - costs that the UK can't afford. He wants the EU to cut down bureaucratic meddling in business by Brussels - but then, everyone else wants that, except maybe Brussels bureaucrats.
Facing these issues, Cameron finds it necessary to fool himself as well as the voters. His speech described his own approach as based purely on economic truth - "Practical, not emotional. Head, not heart." That's the way the British think, he said. "We are rigorously practical."
All to the contrary. A review of the arguments on both sides indicates that this referendum will be decided by cultural rather than economic issues.
The British sleepwalked into the EU in 1972 and only much later realized what it meant. They discovered that they had silently given away part of their sovereignty to an international body with its own rules. These rules sometimes superseded British law, even on such delicate subjects as human rights. The British, or at least some considerable number of them, were astonished that any institution, anywhere, could consider itself superior. Their pride was hurt, and as the argument has developed emotion has played an increasingly large role. Selfimage, resentment, envy and patriotism now count far more than exports and imports.
The EU charter states the organization's goal as "an ever closer union." Cameron's speech dealt with that point in a way that revealed the true agenda: "I am asking European leaders for a clear, legally binding and irreversible agreement to end Britain's obligation to work toward an ever closer union." He believes Britain should never be entangled in a political union, a United States of Europe.
Why not? The EU has been heading in that direction and its 28 states probably include several that might be happy to live in a version of the U.S. But not Cameron's U.K.: "We do not believe in it. We do not subscribe to it. We have a different vision for Europe." Does that sound unemotional?
The unique history of Britain, from the Renaissance to the 20th century, has left the British of today with a vision of themselves they hope to protect. It's hard to know whether Out or In can do more to save that ideal, but emotion, despite Cameron's claim to being entirely practical, remains a crucial matter in the life of the nation.