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Jefford on Monday: The UK decides

As Britain’s referendum on membership of the European Union approaches, Andrew Jefford looks through his wine glass at the campaign...

In four days’ time, we will know the result of the UK’s referendum on continuing membership of the European Union.

I’d like to write that the referendum ‘will be over’ – but that depends on the margin of victory for the winning side.  The debate has been so divisive and so toxic, the arguments so uncompromising and sometimes hysterical, and the passions they arouse so visceral that a slender margin of victory by either side may well be subject to legal challenge.  The murder of British MP Jo Cox last week by a man who now calls himself ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain’ has added tragedy to rancour.

A narrow win by the ‘Remain’ campaign, moreover, could be followed by a split in the governing Conservative party and a general realignment of the UK’s political scene.  Those who see virtue in political stability, therefore, will be hoping for a substantial margin of victory by the winning side.  Whichever side that may be.

It will come as no surprise that Britain’s wine (and drink) businesses overwhelmingly back continuing membership: when the Wine and Spirit Trade Association surveyed its members, only two per cent backed ‘Brexit’, and 90 per cent backed continuing membership (eight per cent were undecided).  Domestically focused pub chains and smaller brewing companies sometimes see matters differently: pub chain J.D.Wetherspoon’s founder, the engaging and eccentric Tim Martin, is a leading Brexit campaigner.  Britain’s wine and spirit businesses, though, are so comprehensively reliant on international trade that a colossal political shift which would affect, change and possibly damage Britain’s existing trading arrangements is bound to be viewed with alarm.

I’d love to be able to nuance the relative advantages of Britain’s leaving the EU, and of Britain’s remaining in the EU, for wine importers, retailers and drinkers.  Practical predictions of this sort have become the currency of the campaign – since it is practicalities which interest most voters, and which are meaningful to them.  The detail of trade deals, of constitutional issues or of governmental interactions, or the broader international or historical significance of Britain’s decision, has been little discussed.  Nonetheless these complex issues are all in play – and are of such significance that many feel this decision should not have been handed to an electorate unwilling or unable to grapple with them.

The need to come up with a practical set of consequences for the vote means that both sides have constructed grand, showy yet shallow economic and social edifices out of guesswork connected to everything from house prices to NHS funding.  So what do we know?  Simply that Britain has the second largest economy (based on GDP) of the 28 member states, and that the EU has never seen its second largest member walk out of the door and slam it shut.  We know no more than that.  The consequences for Britons (like those in the wine trade) whose livelihood depends on international trade must also be a matter of guesswork.

If we stay, nothing much will change in the short run, though current Europe-wide discontent with the existing structures of the EU, the rise of populist anti-EU parties of every political hue, and the startling fact that its second largest member felt compelled to hold a referendum on continuing membership, should propel reform to the top of the EU agenda over the next decade.  A vote to remain may give the UK a little additional authority in negotiations by virtue of the fact that it has held this noisy, protracted and forceful debate, though the country has still elected to sit in the back seat by remaining outside the Euro and the Schengen group, and by negotiating its comprehensive suite of opt-outs.

If we leave, we don’t know what will change.  These waters are entirely uncharted.  Every aspect of UK-EU relations would need renegotiation, including the arrangements for importing and exporting alcoholic drinks to and from a significant new non-member country on the edge of Europe which suddenly finds itself in no particular trading block.  The rest of the EU will rightly see Britain’s desertion as an existential threat, and is unlikely to make accommodating arrangements.

Arrangements with non-EU nations may change, too, since such deals have in many cases been negotiated by Europe on behalf of all its members.  Britain’s largest non-EU trading partners, like the USA and China, view the possibility that Britain might choose to leave the European trading block as an incomprehensible act of economic self-harm.  The one certainty is uncertainty – though Leave campaigners are right to point out that Britain’s trading arrangements have survived bigger shocks than this in the past, and that Britain will retain some business attractions even outside the EU.

Undecided, wine-loving British voters, if there are any left at this stage, would do best to think beyond the immediate practical implications of the UK leaving the EU, which are necessarily opaque, to the wider picture.  This vote is not just about the UK; it is about Europe itself, and about the world beyond Europe. As the fifth largest economy in the world by GDP, a founder member of NATO, and one of the five permanent members of the Security Council of the United Nations, the UK is a leading global actor.

It is entirely possible that a Leave vote would initiate the slow dismantling of the EU as we know it, something that is high up the agenda of France’s Front National and other fast-rising European populist parties.  This would mean the end of Europe as a cohesive economic force, competing, trading and negotiating as a block with the USA, China, Japan and India.  Wine drinkers may not suffer directly from this, but Europe’s (and Britain’s) wine producers would surely find exporting more of a struggle in this changed world.  It may, too, affect overall European prosperity.

If the EU does not fissure after a possible Brexit, then Germany will become its unquestioned economic and political prime mover (assuming that France continues to prove itself incapable of instituting economic reform, and that growth in Italy and Spain remains muted).  Germany’s economic probity and moral courage have, I believe, been a force for good in Europe in recent years, but it is not desirable that any nation should become over-dominant in a Union of 28, and in any case the Germany of today may not necessarily be the Germany of tomorrow.  What is certain is that without the UK in it, the EU will definitively assume a ‘continental’ identity.

The UK is at present an essential stepping stone or gateway to Europe; its role as “the place in Europe where English is spoken” is its greatest geo-economic asset.  Leaving the EU will necessarily alter that status, which would be gradually assumed within the EU by nations such as Sweden, the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland.  (London has always, to take an almost trivial example, been seen as the wine world’s crossroads; it will increasingly be seen as a detour.  Prowein will continue to be the place in Europe to enact wine business, while the focus of wine exporters on the USA and China will strengthen further.)

The consequences for security of Britain leaving the EU are significant, given the fact that one of the two major US presidential candidates for the November 8th election, the Virginia winery-owning Donald Trump, advocates disengagement from Europe and considers that NATO is “obsolete” and needs to be “rejigged”; given the terrorist threat from radical Islam; given ongoing sectarian divisions in the Middle East and civil war in Syria; and given the dismal state of relations between Russia and its western neighbours.

Leave campaigners suggest that Britain would somehow be safer and more secure from these threats once outside the EU.  The truth, though, is that any altered scenario is beset with uncertainties and dangers.  Wine production and consumption, like every other aspect of our ‘normal’ lives, needs a secure world in order to prosper.  Security requires as much cooperation between nations and organizations as possible, not a chain of fierce little fortress nation-states each obsessed with defining, defending and protecting its own national identity.  Security can be lost with horrifying speed, as the Balkan wars of the 1990s proved to the Europeans who cared to notice.  The status quo is always thin ice.

If Leave does prevail this Thursday, the single issue which will have carried the vote looks likely to be immigration.  There are two strands to this issue in the UK: immigration from Europe, based on the free movement of people within the EU, which has directly impacted the lives of many Britons both positively and negatively; and the European migrant crisis, which has directly affected few but received copious media coverage.

The most alarming and distasteful element of the campaign has been the hostile, uncompassionate, mendacious and sometimes xenophobic coverage of the immigration issue by Britain’s pro-Leave tabloid newspapers, and by some Brexit campaigners: Britain at its ugliest. This is the solar plexus of the Brexit debate: that which is least susceptible to reasoned argument.  Voters are likely to fall back on their own moral code, psychological constitution and personal experiences in deciding their response.  Perhaps wine perspectives are irrelevant here – except to the extent that wine consumption goes hand-in-hand with an appreciation of what other cultures can offer; and with a respectful, tolerant, welcoming, warm-hearted and optimistic view of other human beings.

Now let’s see what Thursday brings – and then get on with making the best of the consequences.

More Jefford on Monday:

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