The Balkans Will Suffer if Britain Quits Europe

Balkan Insight
Publication date: 
Jun 15 2016

Britain’s Prime Minister is staring political disaster in the face as polls suggest that voters are set to defy his advice and vote to crash out of the EU in the historic “in-out” vote on June 23.

With less than ten days to go before the referendum - whose result is binding, not advisory, on the UK government - there is growing panic in the “Remain” camp that their message is not getting through.

David Cameron has assembled a broad campaign, comprising all the main party leaders plus a phalanx of celebrities, actors, scientists, business chiefs and even archbishops in support of remaining inside the EU.

But a series of polls, starting from last week, suggest that support is sliding in the opposite direction, with all three showing an “Exit” majority of between one and 10 ten per cent.

If these worrying indications are confirmed on June 23, Cameron’s successful political career will come grinding to an instant halt - and both Britain and the EU will be plunged into an unprecedented crisis.

Ever since the EU was formed in the 1960s, when it was known as the European Economic Community, no nation has ever left it.

Cameron has thrown every argument he can think of into the “Remain” campaign, warning of a dramatic fall in house prices, a slump in the pound, the collapse of the United Kingdom, a trade war with Europe and a massive rise in unemployment if the UK pulls out of the EU, which it joined in 1973. He also said a UK exit will embolden an assertive Russia and delight Islamic State terrorists.

But polls show the message is only hitting home with the under-35s, with Londoners and with the prosperous middle class.

The latest Guardian/ICM poll, released on Monday, showed that pensioners and working-class voters don’t give a fig about Russia, and remain resolutely hostile to continued EU membership, with the “skilled manual workers” category backing the “Exit” option by a thumping majority of almost 70 to 30 per cent.

Most of these workers appear uninterested in Cameron’s economic warnings and blame the EU for unrestricted immigration - currently running at 300,000 a year - that has increased competition for jobs, welfare benefits, social housing, school places and hospital beds.

In another blow for the government, the most widely read tabloid in the UK, the Sun, on Monday came out with the shrill banner headline reading “Be-Leave in Britain!” and urging its readers on June 23 to free themselves from a “greedy, wasteful, bullying and breathtakingly incompetent” EU.

Faced with the Exit camp’s latest claim, which is that “millions” of Turks will soon head for the UK as a result of the EU deals with Ankara on the refugee crisis, the government has been stuck to come up with an answer.

While the long-term effects on the British economy of leaving the EU are unquantifiable, there is no doubt that the UK’s departure would be bad news for the queue of nations in the Balkans waiting patiently to enter the bloc.

Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo are all in different stages in the queue outside the Brussels office – but all are eager to join the EU as soon as possible.

However, if the vote in Britain goes the wrong way, one likely result is that all the EU‘s energies for the next two years - at least - will be consumed by bitter arguments with the UK over the terms of its exit and over its future trading relations with Europe.

Visits by important EU leaders to the Balkans will be rarer and, when they take place at all, less significant.

Another negative likely side-effect of a UK exit vote for the Balkans is that it is likely to feed hostility to enlargement among the remaining EU member states.

Some of these countries, especially in the richer west, will be very reluctant to see wealthy Britain’s vacated place replaced by a stack of poor Balkan states, none of whom will be net contributors to the club.

Countries hoping to enter the EU in the next few years could therefore find their applications effectively parked for a decade, while the EU tries to sort itself out.

Faced with the possibility of a very chaotic situation unfolding on June 24, the “Remain” camp is trying to steady its nerves in the hope that voters will pull back form the brink, once they are actually in the voting booth.

Polls in the UK have also been wrong before; most notably before the last UK general election, when almost all of them underrated the level of support for the Conservative Party by several points. Cameron has been lucky before when the odds looked stacked against him. He must hope that his proverbial luck holds out one more time.


Balkan Insight