Brexit-Brexin: Two leaps in the dark

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David Cameron [European Council]

The referendum debate on the UK and EU has mutated to a classic David-and-Goliath battle with a public sceptical of both sides, writes Dr Melanie Sully.

Dr Melanie Sully is a British-born political scientist working as head of the Institute for Go-Governance based in Vienna. This article first appeared in the Wiener Zeitung, on  17.5. 2016.

Anti-Establishment, anti-elite politics and a frustration with “those up there” and a wish “to show ‘em”, typifies the current Federal Presidential campaign in Austria and clouds the upcoming UK EU referendum. With Prime Minister Cameron, the two main opposition parties, the Scottish government, the IMF, Obama, captains of big industry and the EU all for UK remaining a member, the referendum threatens to become a classic David and Goliath battle (where the latter is confusingly also called David).

Cameron has sworn he will not resign if he loses the referendum so as not to encourage voters to opt for Brexit in an effort to topple him. But the campaign and vote will inevitably have much to do with the Tory leadership succession. Whilst the revelations in the Panama papers caught Cameron off guard, most know he is rich and privileged and suspect politicians anyway seek subtle ways to stash their money for profit. His main error was not to come clean to start with, showing the extent to which his advisors are preoccupied with the EU campaign.

Should the decision be to come out of the EU, much will depend on the size of the majority. In any case it will be for the UK to inform Brussels of the people’s wish to start the clock ticking on negotiations. Some have speculated that this may not occur until the end of the year.

The EU treaty is not clear on a number of points such as whether a country could change its mind after stating its intention to withdraw. In the UK the negotiators for Brexit will have to be decided and it would be odd if these were the same as those who had campaigned to stay in.

What would happen to the UK presidency of the EU scheduled for 2017 and should members of the European parliament elected in the UK vote on policies that would not apply to the country in the future? The UK would stay a full member for at least two years but might not feel inclined to follow EU laws waiting for the long process of court rulings by which time it could be outside.

And what about Scotland? It could request an independence referendum but it would be for London to grant it. Weighed down with exit negotiations there would be little appetite for another front of uncertainty. The Scots could go ahead with a referendum which would lack legitimacy leading to a Catalonia type scenario.

A vote to stay in the EU however is not a vote for the status quo. The EU is changing fast but the direction is unsure, the relationship with Turkey ambiguous, and the future of the Eurozone unclear. Refugees could become in the coming years EU citizens with rights to move freely around which unsettles some voters.

Experts on both sides predict chaos or a new brighter world but voters distrust most predictions. Such specialists sensationally failed to see the financial crisis of 2008. Either way staying in or leaving unfolds a series of unknowns for both the UK and Europe.