Pity the British. Here in New Zealand we have referendums on subjects such as the national flag; they have them on the make-up of their nation and its place in the world. Having narrowly survived a referendum in Scotland in 2014, the United Kingdom is coming to a vote this month on whether to stay in the European Union. While it is only proper that such fundamental questions are decided by popular vote, they are not easy and much rests on the good sense of the electorate.
The governments of Europe naturally want Britain to stay in the EU; so does Washington. Britain's Foreign Office has long made it its mission to keep the US and Europe in harmony on international security issues. When that mission has failed, as it did over the Iraq invasion, Britain has sided with the US so Americans never feel completely alone. It is not clear whether this prospect worries Washington as much as it does Whitehall, but in the event of a "Brexit" from Europe, British foreign policy would no doubt continue to try to act as a go-between. Its ability to influence European allies, though, could be reduced.
New Zealand's main concern, like every other country, needs to be the implications for global security. A vote to leave Europe would consign Britain to no more than a loyal sidekick of the US rather than one that can bring European partners into play when action is needed. New Zealand also has vital interests in the internal decision of the EU, especially on issues of trade. Britain is an important voice for liberal economic and trade policies in the councils of Europe, an ally with the likes of Germany, Holland and Denmark against the protectionist instincts of France and most others. Without Britain, the EU could be a less open market.
But then, outside the EU, Britain could be a more open market for New Zealand goods. Fifty years ago this country would have rejoiced at the possibility of a Brexit. The British Government's negotiations to join the common market were closely monitored by the Holyoake Government here and it secured some safeguards for New Zealand farm products for a generous period. Nevertheless, Britain's entry was the seminal event for New Zealand's modern economy and our national identity now.
We are no longer dependent on a single market and few of us would want to be ever again. Despite voting recently to retain the flag of a British dominion, we can comfortably contemplate becoming a republic within the Commonwealth. We can watch this referendum debate with the detachment of any other country. It appears to be veering to a vote to stay. Prime Minister David Cameron and business voices are sounding more measured than the leave camp, particularly the excitable Boris Johnson. His debating club manner is probably doing fatal damage to his hopes of leading the Conservative Party, let alone carrying this referendum.
The laws, rules and red tape of Europe are minor annoyances for Britons beside their national interest in its decisions. The smart money says they will stay.