Europe Day celebrations muted in Britain as Brexit prospect looms large

It’s Europe Day on Monday, 9 May, and as the nations in the continent mark the day, a debate rages in Britain. Monday may indeed be the last time that Britain will be a part of the European Union Flag Day celebrations.

On 23 June, the nation will vote in a referendum, which will decide whether UK will stay or leave the EU, more than 40 years after joining the bloc. While David Cameron from the Conservative party is urging people to stay in the EU, other Conservatives including former London Mayor Boris Johnson want the British subjects to vote for leaving the EU. Fears of Britain exiting the EU (termed Brexit) have already compelled other nations such as the US and Japan to speak up against it.

Cameron warned  on Monday that a British exit from the EU would threaten peace on the continent.

British Prime Minister David Cameron delivers a speech on the European Union at the British Museum. Reuters

British Prime Minister David Cameron delivers a speech on the European Union at the British Museum. Reuters

"Isolationism has never served this country well," he said in a speech at the British Museum in London. "We've always had to go back in, and always at a much higher cost."

Cameron said that while Europe had largely been at peace since the end of World War II, it was barely two decades since the Bosnian war, while the continent was facing a "newly belligerent Russia".

"The serried rows of white headstones in lovingly-tended Commonwealth war cemeteries stand as silent testament to the price this country has paid to help restore peace and order in Europe," he said.

"Can we be so sure that peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt?

"Is that a risk worth taking?...I would never be so rash as to make that assumption."

The Remain and Leave camps are neck-and-neck on 50 percent each, according to the What UK Thinks website's average of the last six opinion polls. Johnson, a key figure in the Leave campaign, is expected to make a speech later on Monday.

European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker warned in an interview with the German press group Funke Mediengruppe on Monday that a so-called "Brexit" would "surely have unforeseeable consequences on European cooperation, about which I absolutely do not wish to speculate about because I am convinced that Britons will make the reasonable decision."

"All Europeans want Britain to remain in the family," he said, recalling that the EU had struck a "fair deal" with Britain in February on reforms aimed at keeping it in the bloc.

Decade of uncertainty
Cameron had earlier warned on Wednesday that advocates of leaving the European Union have not thought through its economic impact, as a Brexit would spark "a decade of uncertainty." Cameron said it could take years for Britain to negotiate new trade deals with the other 27 EU members. Collectively, they account for more than 40 percent of UK trade.

A banner encouraging people to support a local Brexit campaign hangs on the side of a building in Altrincham, Britain. Reuters

A banner encouraging people to support a local Brexit campaign hangs on the side of a building in Altrincham, Britain. Reuters

Leaders of the "leave" campaign say the UK would soon forge new trade agreements, and some point to a Canada-EU trade deal as a model.
Speaking to a committee of lawmakers at a regular question-and-answer session, Cameron said the Canada deal was seven years in the making and is still not in place. It also does not apply to services, which account for a large chunk of Britain's business with the EU.

He said it was "a good deal for Canada, thousands of miles away from the continent of Europe. It's not a good deal for Britain."
While the Remain campaign leaders have repeatedly warned that a Brexit, would hurt the economy, some economists disagree, saying the British economy could benefit if freed from EU red tape.

But Cameron said he didn't want voters to wake up on 24 June and say they hadn't been warned.

"We would be potentially looking at a decade of uncertainty," Cameron said. "The 'leave' campaign have not thought this through sufficiently."

Last month, Angel Gurria, the secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) warned Britain that leaving the European Union would be tantamount to taxing its citizen. "Brexit is like a tax," he told the BBC. "It is the equivalent to roughly missing out on about one month's income within four years but then it carries on to 2030."

Gurria's assessment followed that made by the UK Treasury which determined that leaving the European Union would cost Britain the equivalent of $6,100 per household. The estimate was based on an analysis of the long-term costs and benefits of EU membership and its alternatives.

The ever-more dire OECD judgment came the same day that authorities reported Britain's economy slowed in the first three months of the year amid concerns about the global economy as well as the vote on EU membership.

One of the leading members of the campaign to leave the EU, Nigel Farage, dismissed the concerns and the people who made them.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah — IMF, OECD, a whole series of international organizations stuffed full of overpaid people who failed in politics mostly," he told the BBC. When asked to name organisations that backed the so-called Brexit idea, he said: "They are called markets, they are called consumers, they are called people and they are called the real world."

Don’t go, say US and Japan

International leaders have also spoken up about the issue and said that they prefer Britain stays in the EU. In a BBC interview, Obama said "it could be five years from now, 10 years from now before we were able to actually get something done." The US and the 28-nation European bloc of which Britain is a member are attempting to seal a trade deal, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP. Obama said that "the UK would not be able to negotiate something with the United States faster than the EU." He added, "Our preference would be to work with this large block of countries.”

However, Donald Trump, the Republican candidate in the US Presidential race Trump argued that the migrant crisis rocking the European Union was in part brought on by the bloc itself. "I think the migration has been a horrible thing for Europe. A lot of that was pushed by the EU," he told Fox News. "I would say that they're better off without it, personally, but I'm not making that as a recommendation, just my feeling," Trump said.

The billionaire added: "I know Great Britain very well. ... I have a lot of investments there. I would say that they're better off without it, but I want them to make their own decision."

UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Reuters

UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Reuters

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday warned that Britain would become "less attractive" for Japanese investment if it votes to leave the European Union in a June referendum. Following talks with Cameron at his Downing Street office in London, Abe said many Japanese companies chose specifically to be based in Britain because they saw it as a gateway to the EU bloc.

"A vote to leave would make the UK less attractive as a destination for Japanese investment," Abe told reporters at a press conference. "British membership is also best for Japanese investors in the UK. About 1,000 Japanese companies operate in the UK, employing 140,000 people.

"Japan very clearly would prefer Britain to remain within the EU. It is better for the world that Britain remains in a strong EU," he said.

Cameron said Japanese investment in Britain totaled £38 billion ($55 billion, 48 billion euros) at the end of 2014 and had played a particularly important role in reviving British car manufacturing.

With inputs from AP and AFP

Updated Date: May 09, 2016 16:21 PM

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