It is on the pocketbook issues that Britain’s Remain campaign has chosen to take its stand. For weeks, it has bombarded the public with warnings and research purporting to show that Brexit would take a toll on economic growth, living standards, public services and even property prices. International institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Bank, along with government leaders around the world, have chimed in with statements that Britain would be worse off outside the EU.
It is still unclear how far such arguments will sway the undecided voters who will determine that outcome of the referendum, in the face of Leave’s focus on the more emotive issue of curbing immigration. It is also indicative of the difficulty of arguing a positive case for staying in the EU that so few in the Remain campaign try very hard to make it. Furthermore, Remain needs to overcome wider public disaffection with and mistrust of, not just EU institutions, but establishment politics at national level as well.
A similar popular mood is spreading across much of the rest of Europe. A UK vote for Brexit would strengthen the growing populist and nationalist forces in the EU that want their countries to leave it and even to dismantle the European Project altogether. What makes that challenge so powerful is that Europe’s leaders, under rising pressure from insurgent parties at home, have few ideas about how to respond to them. There are fundamental problems at the heart of the European Project. But there is a serious shortage of realistic solutions, still less a political consensus on what they should be.
A British Prime minister whose party holds a minority of seats in the House of Commons is returned to office with a slender parliamentary majority. In an effort to bridge deep rifts in his party over Europe, he promises an in-out referendum on the issue and sets off for Brussels to negotiate better membership terms. Though the concessions he obtains are widely dismissed as meagre, and although almost a quarter of his cabinet campaigns to get out of Europe, the British electorate votes by more than two to one to stay in.
That referendum was in 1975, when Harold Wilson was Britain’s Prime Minister. Today, David Cameron, his Conservative successor, must have pondered more than once on the uncanny parallels with the circumstances of his own decision to hold his own party together by committing it before last year’s election to put Britain’s future in Europe to a popular vote. And with many opinion polls suggesting that the public is evenly split on the issue, he must be hoping that the story ends the same way, too. But will it?
For all the apparent similarities, the differences between then and now are at least as striking. To start with, it was much easier to make a positive case in favour of closer European co-operation in 1975 than in 2016. Though the economies of Britain and most of continental Europe except Germany were still reeling under the impact of the first Arab oil shock, enthusiasm for further integration remained high in much of the region.
One reason was that the horrors of the Second World War and of the historic Franco-German reconciliation that underpinned the creation of the European project were still within living memory. Many leading pro-European members of Wilson’s cabinet, such as Denis Healey and Roy Jenkins, later to become president of the Commission, had fought in that war and were deeply influenced by the experience. Even some prominent Labour party anti-Europeans, such as John Silkin, then agriculture minister, acknowledged that integration was a good idea for the rest of Europe, but just not for Britain.
That generation has died out and with it fervour for the European ideal. In part, that is because integration has advanced a long way in the past four decades – above all through creation of the single market – arguably making it a victim of its own success. Old enmities, at least among the original member states, have faded, while younger generations have grown used to the easier travel, increased job mobility, cross-border shopping, cheaper communications and other benefits made possible by the demolition of border barriers. Against that, the huge economic and human costs of staving off the collapse of the Eurozone have raised serious popular doubts and cynicism about assertions that the solution to every big problem is “more Europe”.