You only have to take a cursory look at any news outlet to appreciate that something quite fundamental is happening in the next few weeks. On 23 June 2016, Britain will vote via referendum on whether the United Kingdom will remain in the European Union. Ever since the UK entered the political union (or its predecessor the European Economic Community to be precise) in 1973, its citizens have had a rather distant relationship with the supra-national body. Unlike other European states like Germany, France, and the Republic of Ireland (who entered the union in the same year as the UK) to name just a few, it’s fair to say the United Kingdom has never been an enthusiastic advocate of the European project.
Throughout the complicated history of the European institutions, the UK has often seemed like a semi-detached observer, its politicians instinctively resisting the red tape, bureaucracy, and integration associated with EU membership. Indeed, successive British governments have effectively sought to renegotiate the union’s treaties and deals, often with mixed success. While British administrations of all persuasions have been locked in a seemingly perpetual cycle of renegotiation, it is not the minutiae of political rules that has led to next month’s crucial referendum.
Rather than the aforementioned red tape and bureaucratic intrusion that is often cited by polemical commentators, the problem that many Britons have with continued EU membership has nothing to do with bureaucracy, but everything to do with perceived political integration. What clearly irks some of the loudest voices endorsing the “Leave” campaign is the notion that this alleged integration will become ever more pronounced, and all traces of national sovereignty will be permanently ceded to Brussels. Campaigners for Brexit fear a de facto United States of Europe above all else, it seems.
One of the more interesting aspects of the debate surrounding Britain’s European future is the overwhelming focus on emotion. With such a seminal vote imminent, one would have expected political leaders to focus on the details. After all, how else can voters make a genuinely informed decision? Instead, what many campaigners offer (on both sides of the debate it has to be said) is emotive and immature rhetoric. Perhaps that is why the “Leave” campaign has attracted some very eccentric and vocal proponents to its cause.
Arguably, the propensity for populist and sentimental rhetoric is one of the reasons many observers are predicting the retention of the status quo in June’s referendum. For seismic constitutional change to take place, logic states that the middle ground must be persuaded. It’s difficult to make the case for substantive change when febrile emotion has hijacked the argument. It is easy to scoff at some of Boris Johnson’s more bizarre pronouncements, but it is clear that the former Mayor of London is much more intelligent and capable than the crude caricature often presented of him. Despite his unconventional demeanour, Johnson is undeniably a shrewd and ambitious operator. None of which makes him right on the Brexit question, of course. We’ll soon find out if Boris and his fellow Brexit supporters have persuaded enough British voters to leap into the unknown.
It’s interesting to observe the different dynamics operating on both sides of the Irish Sea. Unlike the UK, Irish people (of all political persuasions and none) tend to be more enthusiastic and vocal in their support of the EU. With some exceptions, Irish people generally give a wholehearted seal of approval to the European project. And how could it be any other way? Modern Ireland is testament to the triumph of the EU. Irish infrastructure, from roads and railways to everything else in between, has been transformed by EU finance.
It’s not just economic factors that underpin Irish support for the EU, though. A majority of Irish people have bought into the EU on all levels, viewing it as an institution that enriches their nationality rather than compromising it. One of the positive aspects of Ireland’s progressive outlook is that it doesn’t allow borders to stifle the benefits of EU membership. Northern Ireland has benefited enormously from EU participation and peace funds are only a small part of a substantial European investment. It’s easy to understand, therefore, why normally conservative Northern Irish leaders are reticent to back the Brexit campaign. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a shock. Contrary to popular perception, residents of Northern Ireland instinctively understand complexity of identity, that someone can be British as well as Irish, European rather than insular. One of the consequences of our tragic history is an appreciation of this cultural and national nuance.
The very idea of Brexit threatens the layered and complex Irish political architecture that’s taken years to construct. The implications of a British withdrawal from the EU extend far beyond middle England, therefore. Ultimately, the British people will re-define their own relationship with Europe on June 23, but a huge amount is at stake. It is not an exaggeration to state that millions anxiously await the outcome of the Brexit referendum. Irish citizens (north and south) are included in that number.