The Brexit polls are narrowing. It’s not the first time they’ve done that, but it may be the last. Support for staying in the EU peaked in the 90s and has been in steady decline since, but neither the In nor the Out campaigns have a clear lead. It is obvious that the vote will be settled through the convincing of yet-undecided voters. With Cameron announcing last week that he will suspend collective responsibility and allow ministers to campaign for Brexit, along with him being criticised for a lack of a Brexit plan, it seems that the vote could very much go either way, and it is impossible to predict yet.
This brings the Liberal Democrats to an awkward question; what happens if we leave? I’m not trying to convince you whether we should stay or leave, and I’m less interested in a discussion about what our political and financial situation will look like immediately post-Brexit. Rather, I think the Liberal Democrats, and Liberal Youth especially, need to adopt a contingency plan in the case of an Out victory, so that we don’t let our status as the party of Europe doom us to irrelevancy if the country withdraws.
If the United Kingdom votes to remain in the EU, we would expect the Eurosceptics to accept this decision, to understand that the British demos expressed their political will, and to resign themselves to continued membership. It seems we can only reasonably expect this if we are prepared to do the same in the event of an Out victory. That means a policy of re-admission to the EU will probably be off the table, at least for the next few parliaments. We will also need to justify our continued membership of the UN Security Council. This will probably require renewal of a nuclear deterrent – scrapping Trident and leaving the EU would leave us as a fairly obscure military power. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I am sure there are many both within and without this party that would welcome a scaling back of our military adventurism.
On the topic of trade, we’ll probably be permitted to remain in the EEA, which is the actual economic bloc of the EU, so we will still be able to access the single market and the benefits that come with this, however, we will, of course, be unable to influence the rules governing it.
We are an internationalist party. Cutting our ties with Europe would be a disastrous move, but it need not doom us to international irrelevancy. We should accept the fact that in a post-Brexit world, we would be faced with severely diminished global influence, but would still be in a position to expand and shape global events. Barack Obama has ruled out a bilateral US-UK free trade deal, but he will no longer be President come this time next year, and with the UK still following EU manufacturing and labelling guidelines (as a prerequisite to trade with the EEA), it is unclear that his successor would be as opposed to such an agreement. If we are cut off from Europe, we should not let ourselves be cut off from the rest of the world. We should be at the forefront of arguing for bilateral agreements, free trade deals, greater freedom of movement, and the advancement of liberalism around the world, wherever we have the power to achieve this. Withdrawal from the European Union would be a serious blow this party, and the country as a whole, but it will not remove the opportunity for us to advocate internationalism, co-operation, and greater global prosperity. Should Brexit occur, it will be the job of the Liberal Democrats to ensure Britain remains an outward-looking, optimistic nation, as opposed to fading into insularity and obscurity.