By Harsha Gunasena –
United Kingdom (UK) first requested to join European Economic Community (EEC) in 1963.Application of the UK was vetoed in 1963 and 1967 by Charles De Gaulle President of France. One of the reasons was “UK harboured a deep-seated hostility to any pan-European project”. In 1972 UK entered European Community (EC) under the premiership of Edward Heath, leader of the Conservative Party with the approval of a parliamentary act. The next Prime Minister Harald Wilson of Labour Party negotiated fresh terms with EC and held a referendum asking the question whether to remain in EC or not. With the support of all the major political parties 67.2% voted in favor of remain. However prior to the referendum at the Labour Party conference, members voted two to one in favour of leaving and 7 out of 23 cabinet ministers wanted to leave EC. Hence Wilson gave them the freedom to vote as they wish.
In 1979 UK refused to participate in the European Monetary System which evolved later to the creation of Euro. In 1980 when Margert Thatcher was the Prime Minister an opinion poll reveled that there was a swing of public opinion and 65% opposed to the membership. However after Thatcher negotiated the rebates of membership fee paid public opinion swung back favoring to remain.
In 1983 general election Labour Party changed its policy and campaigned to withdraw from EC. They lost and reverted to the original policy. In1985 UK ratified Single European Act without a referendum. Tony Blair was thinking even of adapting Euro as currency but later the public opinion swung back favoring leave due to the presence of migrants. When Ed Milliband was the leader of the Labour Party during 2010- 2015 he was of the view that there should not be a referendum until UK negotiate for more powers with European Union (EU). After the 2015 General Election David Cameron of the Conservative Party negotiated concessions with EU and arranged to hold the referendum as he promised in the election campaign. Labour Party supported to remain in the referendum in 2016 and the Conservative Party allowed its members to act according to their will. David Cameron supported to remain while Boris Johnson supported to leave. Theresa May wanted to remain but she was opposed to European Convention of Human Rights which was drafted in 1950 under British leadership.
United Kingdom (UK) had a long relationship with EEC or EC or EU. However, the leaders and people of UK did not have a consistent attitude towards that relationship. Leaders of UK were not sure to which side the tide was and hence they held two referendums to ask the people whether to remain or to leave EC. Political parties changed their stances from time to time and the members of the political parties were allowed to campaign and vote freely irrespective of their political affiliations.
European Union kept on evolving from economic community to a political union having a common currency Euro. During this period world political order experienced major changes with the collapse of Soviet Union. Throughout this period British political parties, political leaders and people took different stances to the changing composition of the EU. Political leaders kept on negotiating terms with the EU. Depending on the outcome public opinion swung both ways from remain to leave and the leave to remain. Before agreeing to a General Election Labour leader Jeremy Corbin wants the Prime Minister to loose control of the parliament. Senior Labour Party member recently revealed their plan to negotiate a better deal with EU for Brexit after winning the election. Then they will campaign to remain in a referendum against the very deal they agreed with EU. This shows how complicated the issue is. Finally, what all of this is proving was that De Gaulle was correct.
Theresa May has entered into a withdrawal agreement with EU. British Parliament has repeatedly rejected this agreement. One of the main points raised by the opposers was that UK will have to abide by the EU rules during the transition period to end 2020 although UK will not be represented in EU during that period. This period can be extended by mutual consent.
At present there is no hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is a part of UK. In order to maintain the same status, the withdrawal agreement suggested a temporary customs union involving UK and EU so that there will be frictionless trade across Irish border. However during this period UK cannot enter into trade deals with other countries which would hamper the customs union. This will be extended or terminated with mutual agreement. The intention was to negotiate a trade agreement between UK and EU and thereby the present arrangement would end.
Article 1 (iii) of the Belfast agreement (Good Friday agreement) stated that it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people. Majority of the people of Northern Ireland, 55.78% voted to remain in 2016 referendum. If UK leave EU it would be a change of the status of Northern Ireland and it will be done without the consent of the majority of its people.
There is an agreement to common travel area between UK and Ireland and both countries are not signatories to Schengen agreement. If UK leaves EU customs union then there will be checks at the border. It is argued that this can be minimized similar to the border between Norway ( Non- EU country within Schengen area) and Sweden ( EU country within Schengen area) However checks cannot be eliminated.
It is true that the people in urban areas such as London and educated young people voted to remain at the referendum 2016. But by and large UK was divided in the ethnic lines as a result of the referendum. As mentioned, Northern Ireland voted to remain. Similarly, Scotland voted to remain by a majority of 62%. England and Wales voted to leave by majorities of 53.38% and 52.53% respectively.
As told by Theresa May during the campaign leaving EU would be fatal for the Union with Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland may need to have another referendum to decide whether to leave UK if UK leave EU.
EU plays the role of diminishing ethnic divisions among the nations. Being in EU it would help to diminish the ethnic divisions within UK. England and Wales want to leave EU mainly because they think that their authority is taken away by EU but they do not understand that this very act by EU helps to consolidate the very authority of Great Britain. If they want to keep the identity Great Britain, Scotland and Northern Ireland together with England and Wales, they should remain in EU. If there is Brexit it would be the beginning of the end of Great Britain. They may have to change the name of their country as England and Wales
For this there should be a second referendum. Now people can vote with the insight of the difficulties of Brexit. Idea of second referendum is getting momentum. Recently former Prime Minister David Cameron also endorsed it. Taking the historical volatility of the opinion of people and the political parties in UK of remaining in or leaving EU, holding a second referendum would be a boost to democracy not other way around. Then they can vote to remain. Therefore, Brexin not Brexit would be the way out.
Sri Lanka is divided based on its ethnicity and religion. Politicians especially during the election times provoke the ethnic and religious feelings of the majority in order to get the votes of the majority. Sometimes it works other way around if the minorities vote en masse to the other side. At the last Presidential Election held in 2015 minorities and the people of Colombo voted for Sirisena. Sri Lankan democracy is not matured as British democracy and therefore ethnic and religious minorities in Sri Lanka do not exercise same privileges as in Britain.
Sri Lanka experienced a 30 year old war due to non-reconciliation of the ethnic issues which are not reconciled yet. In addition, the country goes on a different path of non- reconciliation with another ethnicity. This process if continued would eventually disintegrate the Sri Lankan democracy. Devolving power from the centre would ease the ethnic tensions and eventually would secure the Sri Lankan democracy.
In both British and Sri Lankan situations dilution of power and authority, in the case of Britain it is to EU and in the case of Sri Lanka it is to the periphery would save the two democracies in the long run. Democracy does not need authoritative systems and authoritative leaders and in contrast by democratic systems and democratic leaders democracy can be saved.
Results of the Referendum 2016