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Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson.

The Globe and Mail

David Cameron, and David Cameron alone, is putting Britain through a referendum on continuing membership in the European Union.

The Prime Minister did not start the so-called Brexit debate, to be resolved in a referendum on June 23. Brits had been tossing and turning about being part of what continental countries were devising since the creation of the first postwar Western European institutions.

But Mr. Cameron started the most recent iteration of Britain's endless and tiresome in-or-out debate because of restlessness and rebellion inside his own Conservative Party. He did not have to call a referendum, but he did after securing a few modest concessions from the EU, hoping to quell dissension within his own party. What he has done is stir matters to a fever pitch.

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More than anything else, the Brexit referendum, with all its heavy-laden consequences, is an internal Conservative Party row inflicted on the entire country. The most prominent leaders of the Leave campaign are Tories. The screeching Conservative tabloids and the self-important Daily Telegraph, the daily newspaper of plummy Tory England, are all for departing the EU.

Of course, there are Labour Party supporters who want to leave. But Labour membership in its majority wishes to remain, as do the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish nationalists.

Should the Leave side win the Cameron referendum, for we should properly label it as such, ricochet effects might be anticipated as part of a possible Great Unravelling in Europe.

Groups in other European Union countries unhappy with membership will demand their own version of Brexit. Nativists and anti-EU political forces will rejoice. Vladimir Putin will pour himself a vodka, since his ambition is to weaken European integration.

Within Britain, a vote to remain built on Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh majorities, against English wishes, will strain the United Kingdom. Conversely, if the English who wish to leave prevail, victory will strain relations with the so-called Celtic fringe and give Scottish secessionists another reason for breaking up the U.K. Little England will have won.

Referendums, as Canadians know all too well, provoke emotional responses to the question: Who are we? Part of the response in Britain revolves around multiculturalism, as Canadians would call it, for it would appear from the latest online polls that the Leave side has pulled slightly ahead largely on fears about immigration.

Britain has changed hugely in demography in the past quarter-century. Plenty of people don't like the changes that can be seen in cities, or neighbourhoods within cities, with huge visible-minority immigrant populations. Moreover, Leavers fear more demographic changes after having seen last year's flood of refugees and economic migrants across Europe.

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They resent the free movement of people within Europe that has brought citizens of other EU countries to Britain, especially Poles. It is reminiscent of the anti-Polish attitude in Britain after the Second World War – a totally undeserved attitude, given Poland's heroic efforts against Nazism.

Most of Britain's demographic changes have had nothing to do with EU membership. Many immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Africa and the Caribbean came long before the recent Middle Eastern migration to Europe and arrived under Britain's own laws, not anything imposed by the EU. Against the riptides of nativism, however, the EU is targeted as the culprit.

The European Union has its flaws and disappointments, and at its heart lies a contradiction that has not been resolved: the existence of a monetary union without fiscal transfers, as exist, for example, in Canada.

But the EU is being blamed for four megaproblems it did not create, and to which no easy answer presented itself: the migration wave of last year and the chaos of so many states in the Middle East and Africa that will send millions more north in the years ahead; the financial crisis of 2008 that was made in America but then splashed across most of the world; the rise of Islamic jihadi terror that put nerves on edge in Europe; and the leaching of so many jobs in certain industries to China.

Britain, perhaps better than any European Union country, dealt with these challenges – and did so within the union and with special arrangements for itself negotiated long ago. To imagine that these challenges will disappear, or that Britain, largely alone, could handle them better, offers only the illusion of strength.

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