U.K. referendum: The first liar never stood a chance

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The result of the June 23 U.K. referendum on EU membership has shattered the illusions of both "remain" and "leave" voters.

The vote was supposed to set aside differences over Europe. Instead it has increased national divisions within the U.K., weakened the currency, stampeded stock markets, driven the prime minister from office, and endangered the tenure of the Labour party leader.

The old expression "the first liar never stands a chance" applies to the "remain" campaign which focused on the economic benefits of the EU to British citizens, and, especially, the risk of leaving.

U.K. and world business leaders were called in to explain how freedom of movement of capital, goods, services and people worked in favour of the U.K. But globalization, as embodied in EU legislation and policies, causes economic dislocations and regional upsets. That is what the "four freedoms" are designed to do: shift production, jobs and investment to lower-cost locations.

The losers from economic liberalism are numerous; and they get little or no support to adjust to new circumstances. Incomes fall, jobs do not reappear, and people get angry.

Not surprisingly, many Britons rejected Europe: they disbelieved the globalization sales job; direct experience told them it was wrong. Many felt they were already poorly off, and needed to "take back control" as the "leave" campaign tag line had it.

The ability to sell the lies about the one-way benefits of a neoliberal Europe was compromised by the willingness of the "leave" campaign to tell even bigger lies, with greater success. 

Leaving Europe was going to allow Britain to stop migrants at the border, control immigration, still trade advantageously with Europe without shouldering the costs of EU membership, and free up some 350 million pounds sterling a week for investment in national health and other public services.

The reality is that under EU rules, migrants are treated where they arrive on the continent, not fobbed off on Britain.

The two million, mainly young, Europeans working in the U.K. are matched by two million, mainly retired, British citizens living in Europe, and accessing health services abroad.

When it calculated the so-called costs of EU membership, the "leave" campaign ignored the offsetting benefits from EU grants, subsidies and loans.

It will soon become apparent to "leave" voters that the upshot of the "leave" vote is that Britain will line up to rejoin Europe, by becoming a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) formed by Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.

As an EFTA member once again (Britain founded the organization in 1960 as a counterweight to the 1957 creation of the European Common Market) the U.K. would have access to the single market of the EU, but at a price -- free movement of people -- that will betray "leave" voters.

For years the U.K. has been described as having one foot in and one foot out of the EU. British citizens carried U.K., not EU, passports; used the pound sterling, not the euro; and stayed outside the open borders arrangement known as Schengen which prevailed on the continent.

In widely publicized initiatives designed to quell discontent within the ruling Conservative Party, Britain twice renegotiated its EU obligations and budgetary contribution, most recently prior to the referendum.

Ultimately the Tories resorted to a referendum to head off a political threat to the government from the United Kingdom Independence Party.

In the campaign period, "remain" had no telling arguments to offset the "leave" critique of EU democracy. The critiques originated with the British Conservative party, in its own decades-long deliberations on the issue of British membership in the EU.

The idea that the EU was designed to eliminate war by uniting former warring nation states in a common economic project was lost from sight in the referendum campaign.

Instead of seeing the Europeanization of Germany as a plus, the "leave" campaign played on fears of a Germanized Europe.

The takeaway from the referendum is that the U.K. will try to get one foot back in Europe, but will first have to enter prolonged, difficult negotiations to get both feet out.

Duncan Cameron is former president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: Rich Girard/flickr

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