Are EU benefits worth the high price Britain pays?

Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s success in the United States is not unique. Europe is being buffeted by similar populist currents.

The United Kingdom might vote to exit the European Union later this month. Moreover, a “yes” victory might spark what John Gillingham of the Harvard Center for European Studies and Marian Tupy of the Cato Institute called a “rush for the exits.” An EU breakup would be possible.

The most important question for U.K. voters is: Does belonging improve their lives?

European unity originally was designed to expand economic markets. The “European Project” took a dramatic new turn in 1993 with the Maastricht Treaty, which created the EU and set as a goal “ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe.” This process was enthusiastically endorsed by a Eurocratic elite, many of whom are located in Europe’s quasi-capital of Brussels.

Are the benefits worth the cost? Complained Gillingham and Tupy: “The rise of the Euroskeptics in Britain mirrors Europe-wide disillusionment with the institution once considered the continent’s great hope. The EU is failing to deliver a better life for all.”

The single market remains the organization’s greatest contribution to Europe. However, regulation increased as Brussels expanded its authority. U.K. Justice Minister Michael Gove complained that the rules “are inimical to creativity, growth and progress” and have “entrenched mass unemployment.”

The London-based group Open Europe figured that the 100 most important EU regulations cost Britons about $33.3 billion annually.

The EU unabashedly infringes on national sovereignty. For instance, Nile Gardiner of the Heritage Foundation wrote: “For decades, the British people have had to surrender their right to self-determination and have been forced to endure the humiliation of having British laws being overruled by European courts, and a multitude of rules and regulations imposed by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels.”

The U.K. government figures about half of economically significant laws originate in EU legislation. Yet London doesn’t need oversight from Brussels, having set the global standard for parliamentary government for much of the world. Which is why Prime Minister David Cameron pressed for broader British exemptions from EU dictates. He won only modest concessions. At least Brussels still is less Leviathan than is Washington. But some Eurocrats openly pine for a United States of Europe.

Unfortunately, continental government is almost inherently anti-democratic. The EU has been attacked for its “democratic deficit.” Washington suffers a similar problem.

But continental authority weighs more heavily on European nations because much more separates them than divided the American colonies. Attempting to impose unity has triggered strong resistance.

Does London really need to be a member of the U.K. to promote either prosperity or security? Critical would be new relationships forged by London with Europe and America.

Reaching an agreement with America should be relatively easy, despite U.S. President Barack Obama’s professed skepticism. The U.K. is a significant investor in the U.S. as well as a major trading partner.

London could deal with EU members like any other nation under the rules set by the World Trade Organization or negotiate its own trade arrangement. Irritated Eurocrats might not be inclined to be generous. Still it would be in the EU’s interest to facilitate commerce for both sides.

Overall, Raoul Ruparel, Stephen Booth and Vincenzo Scarpetta of Open Europe predicted that Brexit likely would reduce GDP between .5 and 1.5 percent. So, they explained, “the question then is whether the U.K. can use its new found freedoms to offset this cost or reverse it to a positive outcome.”

Brexit opponents also contend that the U.K. would lose international influence by leaving. However, foreign clout is of far greater interest to government officials than to normal people who pay the bills.

Cameron also worried: “Can we be so sure that peace and stability on our continent are assured?” Two former U.S. national security advisers, Tom Donilon and Stephen Hadley, worried that a British exit “could really unravel” the EU, which would pose “a security threat to the U.S.”

But it’s hard to imagine any European nation going to war against a neighbor. The U.K.’s departure from the EU would not revive the continent’s propensity for war. Moreover, the most important European security organization would remain NATO, to which Britain belongs.

For the first time in decades the European Project risks going into reverse. Europeans are learning what Americans realized decades ago: a government strong enough to open markets is strong enough to impose uniformity.

The U.K. will thrive in or out of the EU. The British people must decide just how much they are prepared to pay to preserve a unified Europe.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties. He frequently writes about military non-interventionism and is the author of “Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire”

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