Come back Helmut and Jacques: UK in the EU needs you

Europe had better wake up. In just under 40 days the UK could vote to leave the European Union. That outcome would not just be deleterious to Britain’s future. It could undermine confidence among other European voters about the “Project” and prompt demands for their own national plebiscites. Member states could then fall like dominos out of the Union.

Two former national security advisers in the US, Stephen Hadley and Tom Donilon, have said a Brexit vote could endanger peace and stability in Europe. “If the UK leaves the EU, it weakens the UK, it weakens the EU and, I think, it adds to those forces that are really tearing at the EU and risk tearing it apart,” said Mr Hadley in a FT report. Some analysts go further: they think (over-excitedly) it could occasion an economic (and political) crisis on a par with 2008’s Great Recession.

David Cameron, the UK’s alleged leading proponent of Remain, issued a similar warning this week. But it sinks like a stone. Much the same could be said about the entire pro-EU campaign even though its relentless stress on the risks of Brexit is echoed by virtually every economist, business organization and diplomat around the world – including the Bank of England and IMF.

The bookies are sanguine, offering 1/3 for Stay and 9/4 for Leave. But the opinion polls (however poor their recent accuracy record in the UK) tell a different story. It’s either 50/50 or a narrow victory for Leave. The initial notion that, in the end, Brits would vote conservatively – for the status quo – is looking questionable to say the least. (Telephone polls tell a more positive story for Remain.)

Fuelled by millions of hedge fund money, the Leave campaign is on the front foot with an emotional appeal to “win back our sovereignty/democratic control”, an openly anti-immigrant stance and a series of untruths about how much “Brussels” costs. Boris Johnson, wannabe prime minister and serial myth-maker about the EU (he’s made millions out of this), is touring Britain in a red battlebus emblazoned with the spurious claim the country sends £350m a week to the EU bureaucrats to spend at their will.

It’s by no means certain that the Brits will vote to quit the EU on June 23. Turnout may be critical (with the pro-EU Scots suffering from voter fatigue). But EU leaders should at the very least consider it possible in their contingency planning under way – and think about its knock-on effects. After all, an anti-immigrant swing to the Right has brought down the Austrian chancellor; it is undermining pro-EU sentiment in Poland; it could be the decisive card in next year’s general elections in France and Germany. A deal on Greek debt relief may be in the offing but don’t count on it yet. The refugee crisis could re-emerge as a huge source of instability.

Like many other European countries, the UK has a large and growing number of citizens who feel they are losers in the ongoing process of globalization – and they are a sullen, resentful pool of support for so-called anti-establishment, anti-elite politicians. Their anger is also fed by glaring inequality, stagnant incomes and technology-driven unemployment. The years of “recovery” from 2008 have done little for them.

It is, therefore, in the elemental interest of the EU that its leaders address these issues with greater energy and imagination than they’ve shown so far. Over the immediate short term they might also think aloud whether they can or should intervene in the UK’s Brexit debate. They might, after all, be faced with a similar challenge at home some time…

Forty years ago Helmut Schmidt, the West German chancellor, helped swing the 1975 referendum in Britain towards Yes to Europe with his comradely appeal to the Labour Party. A decade later Jacques Delors, as Commission president, wooed and won the British trade union movement to the single market by offering social Europe. That has stuck and unions representing 4m workers have signed up for the Remain campaign.

OK, leaders of that stature are absent from the current EU landscape. And, of course, an intervention by, say, Mutti Merkel would be denounced by Boris and others as meddling in Britain’s domestic affairs – as he did when Barack Obama came out for Remain. “She’s got growing problems at home,” one seasoned diplomat said, pointing to her dwindling poularity at home. But other EU leaders could, plausibly, argue that the EU’s future as a whole is at stake. A last-minute appeal may be worth it and it’s certainly worth thinking about….But please don’t send Jean-Claude Juncker or Martin Schulz. We Remainers want to win! We need more hands on deck for the sake of Europe as a whole.

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