The (compelling) case against Brexit
Europe’s travails run wide and deep. The European Union has careened from one financial crisis to the next. The exodus of migrant refugees from the Middle East and North Africa has overwhelmed EU nations and stoked caustic nationalism across the continent. Terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels have further eroded what once was Europe’s rock-solid sense of security.
Europe’s struggles serve as the disquieting backdrop for Thursday, when voters in the United Kingdom head to the polls to decide whether to leave the EU for good — a pivotal decision in British and European history. A vote to “Brexit” the EU would require ratification by Parliament, but that ratification would be likely.
As troubled as Europe is, the best choice for Britons is to vote no on Brexit.
Europe’s dysfunction makes it easy to understand why so many Britons want to cut tethers to the EU. The union has been anything but united in coping with a migrant crisis that triggered ugly nationalist backlashes across the continent and seeded so much misery for refugee families. It tangles itself up in bureaucracy that vexes businesses and governments. In the end, however, a unified Europe is a stronger Europe. The continent can better navigate economic squalls and steel itself against external threats — whether manifested in terrorism or the Kremlin — if it thinks and works as a cohesive whole.
This week, EU nations agreed to extend to January economic sanctions against Russia as a response to President Vladimir Putin‘s power plays in Ukraine. Yes, Russia still lays claim to Crimea and Kremlin-backed separatists still control parts of eastern Ukraine, but the sanctions have taken a bite out of the Russian economy. Brexit would weaken the EU, which plays right into Putin’s hands.
Britain’s departure also would jeopardize EU stability and strength. The U.K.’s exit could inspire other EU nations to follow. Greece was on the verge of “Grexit” — leaving the eurozone — during the debt crisis last year. The French are even more skeptical of the EU than Britons: According to a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of the French population view the EU negatively, compared with 48 percent of Brits. Britain is also the world’s fifth largest economy, and its departure would broadside EU markets, as well as U.S. and global markets. Experts can’t predict the magnitude of the impact, but they can point to the core reason for it — uncertainty.
Brexit proponents say leaving the EU makes Britain stronger. The U.K. would be helmsman of its own monetary and fiscal policies, free to negotiate trade pacts with the U.S., China, India and other global leaders under the auspices of the World Trade Organization. But trade pacts don’t materialize overnight. They often take years to forge. European leaders have already made clear they would impose tough terms on Britain’s departure from the EU, which likely would include an end to tariff-free access to other EU members.
Most experts say Britain would walk away from the EU measurably weaker. Because it would be fending for itself economically, it likely would focus far more on domestic issues at the expense of its role as an influential global voice. Analyses of Brexit all point to a U.K. that is poorer, and as Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations recently told The American Interest, “a poorer U.K. would have fewer resources to devote to all aspects of its foreign and defense policy.” That’s bad news for the U.S., which has looked to the U.K. as one of its most reliable allies.
Brexit also would give Scotland newfound incentive to secede. Scotland backs EU inclusion, and Britain’s exit from the union may be the last straw that persuades Scots to vote to break away.
Undergirding the Brexit movement is the belief that Britain has given up too much of its sovereignty to outsiders. Maybe so: Brexit backers say more than half of Britain’s laws originated in the European Commission in Brussels, rather than the House of Commons. And the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg has the authority to supersede some British laws. But inherent in EU membership is a relinquishing of some sovereignty in exchange for the benefits of belonging to an entity that wields more economic heft as a collective.
There’s also a disturbing underside to the sovereignty argument. Brexit backers say EU membership has opened the floodgates to immigrants, robbing Britons of wages and benefits. It’s the kind of nationalistic thinking that makes you wonder whether the Trump contagion has found its way across the Atlantic. In reality, migration has helped the British economy, keeping it stocked with a steady influx of skilled workers.
The EU is far from perfect, but if it needs fixing, it should be fixed, not dismantled. Withdrawing from Europe is the wrong choice for Britain. Embracing the EU, by contrast, isn’t an exciting choice. But it’s the right one.