Britain’s Neverendum on Europe

The campaign for the Brexit referendum has been unusually long and arduous. This might explain one of the strangest features of this referendum – while European observers might consider this one of the most important decisions the UK will ever take, British voters have largely reacted to this campaign with a yawn. The greatest fear of the pro-remain campaign is not that there is a majority for leave but that only the elderly will show up at the polls, with the ‘silent majority’ of younger, more pro-EU Britons, staying home to watch Euro 2016 instead.

The current marathon is only, however, beginning. While the UK Prime Minister has told us that the June 23rd vote will settle ‘once and for all’ Britain’s vexed relationship with Europe, I wouldn’t count on it. The upcoming referendum has all the hallmarks of a ‘neverendum’: a campaign that tries to resolve an issue yet only succeeds in polarizing opinion yet further, guaranteeing its presence on the political agenda for years, if not decades, to come.

The main reason concerns a clash between economic and political realities. First, the economic reality. As even leave campaigners admit, there is no such thing as Britain out of Europe. A UK that conducts the majority of its trade with the EU will inevitably require a comprehensive trade deal with its European partners. If precedents from other countries hold, any such deal will come with significant restrictions on national sovereignty. Other comparators, such as Norway, have untrammeled access to the single market but an obligation to accept EU law wholesale in return. If this is true, any ‘out’ vote is only a vote for years of arduous negotiation, resulting (at best) in a Britain that remains heavily entangled within European policy-making. Ironically, while EU rules on the lengths of cucumbers and bananas have long provided Euro-sceptic scare-stories, precisely such rules are here to stay regardless of the outcome ...

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