Polls have recently placed the ‘Leave’ campaign ahead of ‘Stay’ in the much anticipated referendum on Brexit. Compounded by Deloitte research this week reporting growing Euroscepticism from business communities, and the Prime Minister’s landmark announcement that Ministers will indeed be permitted to campaign to leave, all bets are off. 2015 taught us many things, most importantly not to trust pollsters. However, a look at material evidence from 2015 events does suggest that Britain’s membership is at risk.
The Refugee Crisis dominated the front pages in 2015. For Eurosceptics this was the gift which kept on giving; European leaders held summit after summit without ever producing a meaningful humanitarian response. The Schengen project, a founding principle of the EU and everything it represents, ground to a halt in the Balkan states who were overwhelmed by the sheer humanity trudging along their borders. Just this week, sensible Denmark followed Sweden and nine others in introducing border checks to stem migration. Immigration remains the go-to argument for sceptics, who have rather shrewdly capitalized on this crisis to direct public opinion against Brussels.
Causing this migration is the conflict-ridden Middle East, towards which the EU has been ineffectual, sceptics argue. The EU has a shiny new Diplomatic Corps, the European External Action Service, but its conflict resolution projects have failed. The EU has long under-punched as a diplomatic power, and this shows no sign of changing. A key argument of the pro-EU lobby is that Britain in Europe enhances its voice on the global stage. However, this idea loses legitimacy with every day that the EU spends at diplomatic impasse in Syria and beyond.
The EU has also failed to manage relations with Russia in any constructive capacity. Meagre progress owes to John Kerry and the US State Department. Ongoing conflict in Ukraine has become an afterthought, as has Russia’s de facto annexation of Crimea. President Putin is a bully, and the British Bulldog spirit that fuels the ‘Leave’ campaign does not appreciate being bullied. Free from EU baggage, sceptics argue an independent UK could reassume its role at the world’s top table.
The ugly result of these and many other factors is the wave of terror that has swept through Europe. Even the most liberal democracies are considering intrusive surveillance powers following attacks over 2015. EU counter-terror operations have been poor, with no effective intelligence sharing or targeting of terror groups’ funding streams. Air strikes from national Governments have helped liberate positions, though sceptics suggest this shows how effective independent Governments are when they work in ad-hoc coalition rather than political union. In short, the EU has not stood up to terror.
The Eurozone was also a source of angst throughout 2015. Low growth and high unemployment, compounded by debt-induced meltdown in Greece have rendered the world’s largest trading bloc rather impotent. The ‘Stay’ campaign’s trump card has been the financial risks associated with Brexit. So many British jobs and exports directly depend on the EU that it would be foolish to exit, they say. Drawing on experience from the Scottish independence referendum, the ‘Stay’ lobby can mount an effective campaign around peoples’ economic interests, but this will require a far healthier Eurozone to win people over.
The EU desperately needs some wins in 2016 which directly benefit the British people. The majority of big projects in Europe, such as the Horizon 2020 innovation agenda and TTIP, feel distant and irrelevant. As UK renegotiation seems unlikely to produce fundamental changes, big and bold action is needed to convince the British people not just how bad it would be to leave, but also how great it would be to stay.