Opinion

DYER

Reports of EU's death being greatly exaggerated

By Gwynne Dyer, Special to Postmedia Network

British Prime Minister David Cameron (R) attends a meeting with and European Council President Donald Tusk (L) and European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker (C) during a European Union leaders summit addressing the so-called Brexit on February 19, 2016. YVES HERMAN/AFP/Getty Images

British Prime Minister David Cameron (R) attends a meeting with and European Council President Donald Tusk (L) and European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker (C) during a European Union leaders summit addressing the so-called Brexit on February 19, 2016. YVES HERMAN/AFP/Getty Images

How's this for apocalyptic? "As a historian I fear Brexit (a British vote to leave the European Union in the referendum June 23) could be beginning of the destruction of not only the EU but also Western political civilization in its entirety," said Donald Tusk, president of the European Union, in an interview in the German newspaper Bild.

Tusk is not alone in his worries: last weekend Margot Wallstrom, Sweden's foreign minister, fretted the British referendum could trigger demands for special treatment or referendums in other EU countries.

"Other EU member states (may) say: 'Well if they can leave, maybe we should also have referendums and maybe we should also leave,' " Wallstrom told the BBC. She fears the whole 60-year experiment in European unity may start to fall apart if Britain leaves.

EU politicians are not interested in what happens to the United Kingdom after it leaves. Britain was usually whiny and often downright obstructive in its dealings with the EU, and if it now chooses to commit a spectacular act of self-mutilation, the general European view will be it deserves everything it gets.

If the U.K. loses duty-free access to the EU's "single market" of 28 countries and 500 million people, it becomes far less attractive to non-European investors who want access to that market. It also loses every trade deal it has with other countries, since they were all negotiated by the EU as a whole. Britain could spend 10 years trying to renegotiate them on its own, and end up with worse terms.

You might wonder how any sane British politician, knowing this, would risk holding a referendum, let alone advocate a "Leave" vote. The answer is a foolish miscalculation (on part of Prime Minister David Cameron), and reckless ambition (on part of would-be successor Boris Johnson).

Cameron promised the referendum three years ago as a device for preserving unity of the Conservative Party. It would pacify the right wing of his party, which wanted out, but he thought he would never have to hold the referendum because his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, would veto it. Unfortunately, the Conservatives won a narrow majority in last year's election, the coalition ended, and Cameron was stuck with his promise.

And then Johnson, Britain's somewhat better-mannered answer to Donald Trump, took the leadership of the "Leave" campaign. Johnson was not a dedicated anti-EU campaigner, but he is dedicated to taking the leadership of the Conservative Party and the prime ministership away from Cameron.

Leading the "Out" campaign to victory, forcing Cameron's resignation and taking his place was the only way Johnson could achieve his ambition, so he took it. He has been ruthless in his campaign tactics, telling lies he knows to be lies (like how much Britain pays into the EU), and using anti-immigrant rhetoric that reeks of racism. So he may win.

But he wouldn't enjoy being prime minister much, given what would happen to the U.K. if he wins. Scotland will certainly vote "Remain", and it would probably hold a second independence referendum and leave the U.K. rather than be dragged out of the EU by English votes. .

But what about the EU? Would it fragment?

Probably not. The EU is in economic doldrums, and prospect of several million refugees coming in has facilitated rise of nationalist parties. But advantages of the single market would probably be enough to hold the EU together, especially if members had the horrible example of Britain's fate as a warning.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.