Four hundred years past his death, the question the very English William Shakespeare would pose today is whether it is better to be or not to be - European. The British will answer the question in a referendum on whether they want to stay in their marriage with Europe on June 23.

The problem is that they have never really been happy. They were late in coming to the altar in 1973, and followed this with their first referendum on their membership only two years later. They wobbled again in the 1980s, which gave Margaret Thatcher the ability to secure a special rebate on their contributions.

In the following decades they decided to keep to sterling and not adopt the euro, and in recent times Prime Minister David Cameron negotiated further concessions on migration and welfare benefits that other European countries cannot claim. The fear is these considerations are not enough and Brit voters will seek a divorce from the 27 other countries and the world's largest market for three reasons.

First, the multilayers of bureaucracy and those that create and feed on it are loathed. From the politicians who spent their time in Brussels through to the countries like Greece that cheated the system, disillusionment is high.


Next, despite Britain contributing the second-largest amount of money to the European Community at just under 13 billion a year, only about half of this is recycled back, most in the form of agricultural subsidies, which filter down to a small subsection of the population.

Third, there is a concern that 12.5 per cent of the population living in Britain, about 8 million people including 55,000 Kiwis, were not born in the United Kingdom. Despite the fact that many countries have higher percentages of foreign-born citizens, and many famous Brits were not born in Britain, people are spooked at the thought of losing their identity.

Aside from the fact that Britain has been well-insulated from the refugee and illegal migrant crisis washing across the Mediterranean, the images of thousands of these people trying to climb over barbed wire fences at Calais fuels fears that the kingdom of Britain is in danger of being swamped by people who do not subscribe to their values. The war on terror is not helping.

People are spooked at the thought of losing their identity.

The possibility of a majority of British voting for absolute sovereignty in their referendum has many people worried. US President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping of China have told Britain that they back a strong and united European Union. The Group of 20 and the International Monetary Fund believe that if Britain leaves, the world economy could be at risk as financial markets and international trade arrangements sail into uncharted waters. Others are concerned about impacts upon security, politics and the entire vision of a single Europe, with its shared history, culture and values. The biggest risk of all is that the entire European Community could disintegrate.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is not upset by the prospect of a fragmenting Europe. Nor will Canada, Australia and New Zealand be sad. Each of these former colonies is likely to reap economic benefits associated with future treaties for free migration and free trade as Britain turns to fill the voids it will create if it walks away from Europe.

Increased agricultural trade would be likely, as when the British public gets presented with the bill of about 6.5 billion a year that the European Community pays in subsidies to the rural community of Britain, it is doubtful that they will want to continue the process as it currently operates. Justifying the 500,000 in agricultural subsidies that the Queen receives each year for her farms is not an easy sell if it becomes British, as opposed to European, money.

The overall problem is that we need a united Europe more than we need more trade or migration with Britain. It was Winston Churchill who recognised that a "kind of United States of Europe" was required, with closer economic, social and political bindings, as part of the antidote to further outbreaks of violence of the type that had resulted in two cataclysmic conflicts in Europe within the space of a few decades.

Even more so in the 21st century, with the new and emerging threats from climate change to the war on terror, we require the long-term, balanced and enlightened responses that the European Community generates, as a counter-weight to the Russians, Chinese and Americans. The problem is, this is not necessarily how the British see the situation.

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