It is a rare occasion when voters are called to the polls for the sole purpose of deciding their country’s future place in the world. But that is exactly what is happening later this week in the British Isles, when the long-awaited referendum on U.K. membership in the European Union takes place.
Over three years in the making, the referendum will bring to a close one of the most audacious gambits by a democratically elected leader in recent memory. Prime Minister David Cameron thought he could use the promise of an EU referendum to quell dissent in the Tory party ranks, to provide a boost to his government’s re-election prospects and to strengthen the U.K.’s hand in renegotiating its terms of membership with the European Union. The first part of the plan worked brilliantly. Against all odds and polls, the Tories strode to victory, much to the chagrin of the Labour Party and the United Kingdom Independence Party. Since then, however, things have not gone according to script. Cameron wrung concessions from Europe, but when set against expectations back home they were too little, too late. Euroskepticism and outright anti-Europeanism rose inexorably in the U.K., fueled by a broader populist moment that has touched every corner of Europe.
And now, 13 months after Cameron swept to victory in the general election, there is a very real prospect that the Leave campaign, which is campaigning for Britain to leave the European Union and has stoked passions and fury in this debate with reckless abandon, will carry the day on Thursday. Cameron’s gambit may be headed for failure, and only providence, in the form of good weather, a week free of terrorist incidents or immigrants drowning in the Mediterranean, or individual soul-searching in the aftermath of the tragic political assassination of Labour Party Member of Parliament Jo Cox, can save the Remain campaign now.
Brexit represents a significant but not fatal challenge to the European project. To be sure, it would generate echo effects across the European Union, as anti-EU movements and parties seek to capitalize on the momentum generated by the spectacular departure of an old and significant member of the European integration project. Their pressure and agitation, coupled with the predictable reactions of pro-European governments and parties throughout the EU, would make it harder, not easier, for those committed to Europe to seek EU-level solutions to the myriad problems confronting the continent.
But this would not translate into an ever-lengthening queue in the EU departure lounge. Public support for Europe may well be at a low ebb, but there is something different about the U.K. and its relationship to Europe that sets it apart from other would-be exiters. Down to the present day, British identity remains rooted in its history as an imperial power antagonistic to the political struggles on the continent. As such, the European construction project chafes in the U.K. like nowhere else. Even more important, these sentiments have found powerful expression in both major political parties, most recently the one on the right. Thus, Euroskepticism is not a fringe party or social movement phenomenon in the U.K., as it is virtually everywhere else. Antipathy to Europe finds a home within the pillars of the U.K. political establishment, and this goes a long way toward explaining why the notion of parting ways with Brussels enjoys such strong traction.
While the consequences of Brexit would be significant but not necessarily calamitous for Europe, the same cannot be said for the U.K. Leaving Europe would mark the beginning of a long, slow, quiet slide into the wings of the world stage for the United Kingdom. A recent article in the Washington Post sketched out four scenarios for the U.K. post-Brexit – “Norway/Iceland/Lichtenstein,” Switzerland, Canada, and the World Trade Organization. One suspects that none of these evoke what U.K. Independence Party leader Neil Farage has in mind when imagining the glorious future of a United Kingdom finally freed from Eurocrats and Brussels’ red tape. Yet the evidence is quite convincing that a post-EU U.K. will be measurably poorer, less dynamic and less influential. It will also surely be smaller. The decision to leave is seen in Wales and Scotland as driven by English interests and identity. If the U.K. votes to leave Europe, Scotland will inevitably vote to return.
Just beneath the surface of the vitriolic debate over Brexit, a supreme irony lurks. Take a closer look at the European juggernaut vilified by the Leave campaign. Set aside for the moment the euro and Schengen Agreement, two signature achievements of the 1990s that entail significant encroachments on traditional conceptions of national sovereignty – and that the United Kingdom opted to skip. What remains is big and significant, to be sure, but increasingly subject to national control. Put another way, the trajectory of Europe integration in 2016 is increasingly flat, as the member states assume greater control of the process. Gone is the lofty rhetoric of a United States of Europe. Gone is the assumption that if the European project is to survive, it must continually centralize and strengthen. In its place is a more modest, less ambitious Europe in which Britons ought to feel increasingly comfortable and at home.
Instead, we are looking at even odds that the United Kingdom, which began the postwar period clinging to a special relationship with the United States, then converted out of rational self-interest to reluctant European partner and soon thereafter found its calling as an awkward and difficult partner in Brussels, will hurtle off into new territory after Thursday’s vote as no one’s partner at all, leaving Europe diminished and itself a shadow of its former heavyweight status. Requiem indeed.