Valentine’s Day is the traditional feast of love. But this February, Britons are more fixated on a political divorce.
“Brexit,” the shorthand term for a British exit from the European Union, is finally on the table. For many of my compatriots, the idea is not a negative one; indeed, an escape from the ever greater encroachment of the European superstate on our national sovereignty is a goal we have devoutly wished for since Prime Minister John Major signed the Maastricht Treaty back in 1992. Today, at last, we are positively giddy at the thought of freedom..
The Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, is delivering on his election promise of a referendum on membership in the union, with a vote due by the end of 2017. It will probably be held sooner, in June or September.
Mr. Cameron would prefer Britain to stay in the union. Polls indicate that he is likely to be disappointed. Earlier this month, he returned from Brussels with a package of proposals so weak that Britain’s newspapers united against it.
His so-called brake on welfare benefits for European immigrants, for example, would require the agreement of other countries, would not be applied for more than a year and would eventually be phased out. Mr. Cameron also failed in his attempt to prevent child benefits being sent abroad for workers in Britain with dependents elsewhere in Europe.
After these terms were announced, the pro-exit camp’s lead in polls soared to nine points. One recent survey of Conservative Party members found that more than 70 percent supported Brexit.
The European summit meeting next week could be Mr. Cameron’s last chance to improve his deal. But with the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, touring Britain and helpfully telling us that he would reverse any British gains, Mr. Cameron’s prospects are not promising.
The mood of the country, though, is optimistic. An amicable divorce, many consider, is better than a bad marriage. Brexit campaigners are excited by the possibilities of an independent future in the world. We believe that this vision is better not just for Britain, but also for our European allies.
Brexit offers Britons more money, more control, free trade and planned immigration.
First, the cash. Britain sends about £55 million, or about $80 million, per day to Brussels. To place that in context, Daniel Hannan, a Conservative member of the European Parliament, calculated that all the austerity cuts that the chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, made during the last Parliament, amounted to £36 billion, while Britain’s contribution to the European Union in the same period was £87 billion. Mr. Osborne could reverse every cut in public spending and still pay the deficit down faster if Britain were outside the European Union.
Of course, it is not quite that simple. The European Union returns some of that money through spending in Britain, though not nearly the amount it takes out. In 2015, Britain’s net contribution was £8.5 billion; in 2016, it is forecast to top £11 billion. If we ended these payments, we could end our austerity measures.
The second issue is the wave of illegal immigrants effectively invited into Europe by Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel. A growing proportion of Britons believes their country should accept fewer refugees; Turkey, where a majority of these migrants have come from, is already a safe destination.
We also note that many are young men, of fighting age, who appear to have abandoned their families; the recent sexual assaults on women in Cologne, Germany, by marauding groups of migrants have confirmed the fears of many in Britain. With no curbs on the free movement of migrants under Europe’s Schengen Agreement, British voters expect a wave of unwanted immigration once these migrants are given asylum elsewhere in Europe. We are unwilling to close our eyes to this, and we want our borders back.
Brexit was never a left-right issue. In the 1970s and ’80s, it was supported by both Margaret Thatcher and the left-wing politician Tony Benn. The Labour member of Parliament Kate Hoey told me she believes the European Union stands for big business and tramples down British workers’ wages even as it exploits Eastern European ones. Ms. Hoey’s view is supported by the left-wing labor union R.M.T. The fact that Conservative budget cuts are dwarfed by payments to the European Union is also not lost on liberal voters.
On the right, Conservative cabinet ministers likely to lead the “out” campaign are the business secretary, Sajid Javid, son of a bus driver from Pakistan, and Priti Patel, the employment minister, daughter of Indian immigrants from Uganda (they became shopkeepers, as Mrs. Thatcher’s parents were). Facing such campaigners, the bien-pensant pro-European left will have a hard time stigmatizing the Brexit coalition as anti-business “Little Englanders.”
The case for leaving the union is, indeed, a positive one. Britain is the world’s fifth largest economy, with deep cultural and economic ties to the English-speaking world. We are not anti-immigrant; rather, we wish to manage our own immigration policy. We are pro-free trade, and as the European Union’s chief export market, we will not need to pay for access to its markets; and we want more freedom to trade with India, China and the rest of the world.
The pro-European camp used to tell us that joining the euro was a good idea, and that to stay outside presaged disaster; instead, we’ve seen a meltdown in Greece. The sky did not fall in Britain because we kept the pound and prospered.
We do not plan to cut off our European allies. Britain’s treaty with Portugal is the oldest formal alliance in the world. Post-Brexit, we would continue to trade with our European friends as we have for a thousand years. The European Union, however, is a relic of the ’70s — about as relevant as bell-bottom jeans. Indeed, the last time Britons were consulted on membership was 1975, when I was 4 years old.
Europe is our past and future. We don’t want to leave the Continent, just a failing bureaucracy.
Louise Mensch, a columnist for The Sun on Sunday and the author, most recently, of the novel Career Game, was a Conservative member of Parliament from 2010 to 2012.