This is the way to the (Br)exit

Britain might vote to leave the EU in a referendum on June 23rd. Who are the supporters of Brexit in the United Kingdom and abroad?

“We are with them, but we are not of them”, Winston Churchill famously said in the House of Commons in 1953. The legendary British prime minister told his fellow parliamentarians that he was for the project of European unification - but with certain restrictions.

This has never changed. Since the United Kingdom joined the European Union in 1973 Britain always insisted on a special role. Yes to the Common Market, No to Euro, Schengen and Political Union. Great Britain wants to keep the British Pound, its borders and the sovereignty of its national parliament. Until now this special status had been accepted in the country and by the EU partners in Brussels. But now the sands are shifting. 2016 could become the year of Brexit, when the British people leave the European Union. On June 23rd Britain votes in a referendum about its EU-membership. Although the conservative party leader David Cameron campaigns for a “Bre-main”, as does the leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, the Out campaign seems to gain support. A recent poll of the “Daily Telegraph” showed a lead of Brexit supporters by seven percent.

London is supposedly the center of pro-European Brits. Those, who can afford to travel, live here; those, who work in international companies, which are closely tied with European Union member states, made London their home. Big business is generally pro-European, says an insider of the City, the most important financial center in Europe: “The City is clearly for remaining in the EU.” It is on the coast and in the North where people often feel the free movement of workers endangers their lifestyle and their jobs.

But this spring EU-phobia is rising even in London like the temperatures on the thermometer. A non-representative opinion poll on Abbey Road, where the Beatles once posed bare feet on the street crossing for a record cover, revealed: There is no love lost when it comes to the EU. People of diverse backgrounds work and live here. In this multicultural setting Europe is of minor importance. “I will have to look into this”, says the British-Kurdish owner of the dry cleaning: “It’s a complex matter.” The Egyptian fishmonger is not eligible to vote. A British woman in elegant business outfit could vote, but won’t: “Why should the EU be allowed to dictate us what to do? My sympathies are limited.” The English lady in the pet shop opens her eyes wide as if in terror: “Less bureaucracy would be good, wouldn’t it?”

The governing conservative Party presents a similar picture. Once there was a pro-European tendency, but today the Tories look not only divided. The party is currently in open warfare over the EU question. Far over 100 of the 331 conservative MPs are openly campaigning for Brexit against their own prime minister. Five of his cabinet members, the justice minister among them, are for leaving the EU. Plus: Boris Johnson, the popular mayor of London, decided to lead the Brexit campaign. Since BoJo declared, Brexit has become almost chic - although everyone suspects that Johnson made his move because he has his eyes on the Prime minister’s chair. If Cameron looses the referendum, the one who won it should be best placed to succeed him.

"David Cameron digs holes for himself that other people need to help him out of", sighs Alan Johnson, the leader of the In campaign in the Labour party. It’s not an easy job for the former home secretary. His own party leader Jeremy Corbyn had to be convinced to campaign for staying. Corbyn has been a fierce critic of the EU from the left before being elected leader. Although Labour today is mostly pro-European, the party is in such a state of division on all other questions – leadership included – that it is impossible to actually have a genuine party position on anything.

He would like to lead the official and non-partisan Brexit campaign, but Nigel Farage has lost his magic touch. The jovial chief of the Anti-Eu-party UKIP could not even defend his own seat at last May’s national elections. Although the Europhobe potential in the British population is still there in full force, Farage has lost his ability to use it for his means – partly due to his explosive personality which turned his own party leadership against him. When he speaks in a pub grabbing his pint and calling the EU a “burning house”, people still appreciate it. It’s like the tale of the importance of the United Kingdom which reminds many of the power the British empire once had: “If we leave the EU, we will get a much better deal than Switzerland”, says Lord Lawson, president of “Conservatives for Britain” and one of the voices of “Vote Leave”: “Because we are so important.” The best person to pull Britain out of the EU so far has proven to be Boris Johnson: The chubby and witty biker seems to have enormous sex appeal in Britain right now.

Noone stands above the Brexit debate. Not even the Queen, who “stands above politics, always”, as the Buckingham Palace press team announced after “The Sun” put Elizabeth II. on its cover page screaming: “The Queen backs Brexit”. The paper claimed she had told Nick Clegg five years ago, she wanted her kingdom to leave the EU. The former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s only genuinely EU-euphoric politician, denied the claim. Buckingham Palace complained to the press watchdog, which rarely happens. The royal family likes to be seen politically neutral. That is a hard thing to achieve. As monarchs and land owners they have a natural tendency towards the conservative camp.

How the Queen made the cover of the Sun” was explained by a former editor in two words: “Rupert Murdoch”, said Trevor Kavanagh in a BBC-interview when questioned who decides everything at Britain’s biggest and most influential newspaper. It is therefore not so important if the Queen likes Europe for its aristocracy or dislikes it for too much Eurocracy – the Australian media mogul Murdoch decides about it anyway. He is fiercely critical of the European Union. So are his outlets “The Sun” and “The Times”.

Rupert Murdoch is not the only one who would like the UK to leave the EU. Even within the European Union voices for a break up become louder and louder. Jimmy Akesson, leader of the anti-immigrant party “Swedish Democrats” hopes “very much that we will also soon get the chance for a referendum on the matter”,

Marine Le Pen, who leads the right radical “Front National” in France, has described a possible Brexit as groundbreaking “like the fall of the Berlin Wall”. Indeed, she told “The Telegraph” in an interview that “Brexit would be marvellous – extraordinary – for all European peoples who long for freedom.” Le Pen has up to 30 percent support in opinion polls. Her goal: “Frexit”.

And after Frexit and Brexit, there should be Nexit, thinks Le Pens right radical Dutch equivalent Geert Wilders: “In the event of a so-called Brexit you will see that it will be easier for other countries to make the same decision,” he claimed in a Bloomberg-Interview in January. “The beginning of the end of the European Union has already started. And it can be an enormous incentive for other countries if the United Kingdom would leave.” He of course wants to leave the European Union himself. Dutch elections are due in spring 2017. His party, the PVV, currently leads in the polls.

Slightly less radical is the argument of the Austrian leader of FPÖ, the EU-skeptic, anti-immigration party. Heinz-Christian Strache does not call for an immediate “Auxit”. He wants to take a similar road like David Cameron: First reforms, then referendum. As one can see with the situation in Britain right now, the result could be the same.

The debate has not reached the fierce primaries campaign on the other side of the big pond. The Republican candidates have not mentioned Brexit and its possible implications for the United States of America. But current president Barack Obama is expected in London at the end of April and will say a few words to convince Britain to remain in the EU. Great Britain is the closest ally of the US in Europe and Washington would like to continue discussing EU matters first with London, not with Berlin - at least, if Hillary Clinton wins the elections. Should Donald Trump end up in the White House, US-European relations could take another turn. Who knows what the billionaire plans to do once he has finished building a wall to Mexico.

Barack Obama and the Chinese president Xi Jingping want the United Kingdom to remain in the EU – better for business and politics they say. The only one of the bigger power players who has not endorsed Britain staying in the EU is Vladimir Putin. Is he hoping for Brexit? “The EU and the values it stands for – fundamental rights, media freedom, equality and the rule of law – are the antithesis of the Eurasian Union that Putin wishes to build”, writes Belgian liberal Guy Verhofstadt.

Nobody will stay neutral in this upcoming battle for Brexit or Bremain. Even Winston Churchill is being pulled into the debate. Yes, indeed, the British prime minister said on May 11th 1953: “We are with them, but not of them.” Would he therefore, as Nigel Farage claimed, join UKIP today and be an enemy of the EU? Doubtful. The British politician ended his intervention with the following words: “I have always believed, as an active friend of France for nearly 50 years, that our fortunes lie together.”

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz