Britain and the EU – is a divorce on the way?

The UK will hold a referendum on June 23 to determine whether it will remain in the European Union or not.  Brexit (the contraction of British exit) is a new term that encompasses the wide range of moves afoot politically of those supporting or opposing the decision.

As a result of a pre-election promise by the Conservative (‘Tory’) party in the 2015 elections, the newly elected government drafted a bill which became the European Union Referendum Act 2015 and which gained Royal Assent on December 17, 2015.

The history of the UK’s relationship with the European Union has not been straightforward. The United Kingdom was not a member of the original EEC (European Economic Union) that was created by the Treaty of Rome in 1957. It subsequently applied twice to become a member, in 1963 and 1967. Both these attempts were vetoed by France, under Gen. Charles de Gaulle, however when he left office, the UK applied again, and was accepted, joining the EEC on 1 January 1973.

A change of government in the UK in 1974 from Conservative to Labour resulted in the commitment of the new Labour government to hold a referendum to ratify the decision to join the EEC. In a move that has also been adopted by the current Prime Minister, David Cameron, the then PM, Harold Wilson, allowed his cabinet to campaign publicly on either side. The referendum of June 1975 saw a two thirds majority vote to remain in the EEC.

However the issue was not laid to rest, and in the 1990’s there was a Referendum party formed; it had no electoral success, but the rumblings continued, with the formation of the Eurosceptic UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) in the 1990s, and their eventual growth to become the majority representatives of the UK in the European Parliament elections of 2014. Many believe the fear of the growth of UKIP domestically was a reason for the promise by the Tories to hold another referendum on EU membership if they were re-elected in 2015.

In 2012, David Cameron and the Conservatives had ruled out the possibility of a referendum on this issue, but this position changed by 2014. Since the implementation of the Act in December, and the announcement of the referendum date of June 23, 2016, some very senior members of the current Cabinet have been very vocal in their support of an exit, the most notable being a former leader of the Tory party, Ian Duncan Smith.

Politics in the UK is now dominated by the arguments from both sides of the political spectrum, and attention has been drawn to clause 50 in the Treaty of Lisbon which allows a country to exit:

Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.

Although there is an allowance for a period of up to two years for the transitional arrangements for an exit to be implemented, the complexities of this situation have also drawn comment from senior officials in the UK that this would not be long enough.

The country has seen leaders of the banking world, industrialists, business leaders, trades unions and many others offering their views; the populist newspapers are sadly using the refugee crisis and sad terrorist events to create a climate of fear and apprehension, claiming that a vote to stay will somehow endanger Britain’s security.

The next few months will see ongoing discussions and arguments on the benefits and dangers confronting the voting public.  Many British people are keen on having a bet, and the odds on the UK staying in are currently showing a slight majority in favour. Only time will tell whether a  majority vote either way will settle the question of the UK and EU union once and for all…

Ruth Bird