It is June 24 and voters in Great Britain have voted to “leave” the European Union rather than “remain.”
And observers looking west across what used to be called the “English Channel” remark that Great Britain has disappeared, sunk beneath the waves. Not even a trace remains of “Old Ben,” the House of Parliament/Tower of London, Stonehenge, or anything associated with the United Kingdom. Future generations will recall it as “lost” like Atlantis.
Or that is almost what one might expect, given all of the Apocalypse Tomorrow predictions from the semi-hysterical domestic and global chattering class inveighing against the “Leave” proponents. Less than three weeks before the referendum, the decibel level continues to rise.
Then there are the endless extrapolations of massive economic losses for British citizens; assorted difficulties for Brits in every aspect of their lives, from agriculture to tourism; diminished economic/political influence in the corridors of European foreign ministries; a weakened “special relationship” with the United States; an inability to conclude advantageous trade agreements, and so on.
If the U.K. selects the “leave” option, nobody seems to know how to implement it (apparently not as simple as dropping your Rotary membership or deciding you no longer want to be part of your local religious congregation). There is a vague statement to the effect that Prime Minister Cameron would invoke the provision providing for departure of an EU member two years after notification.
Essentially, however, Brexit is a philosophical question being debated as if it were a purely economic decision. For what will probably be the last time (the first being 1973 when Britain elected to become an EU member), Britain will address the question of whether it wants to be Great Britain as a stand-alone nation state or whether it wants to be “Britain,” a simple, homogenized member of the European Union.
For much of its EU membership, circumstances have been congenial or at least not contentious, and Great Britain has muddled along largely ignoring the EU. London had been able to engage in foreign affairs, e.g., USSR collapse, NATO enlargement, participation in Middle East wars, Afghanistan, without the EU impinging on national interests.
More recently, however, complemented by the exigencies of the Great Recession, the EU strictures have become more grating. Bureaucrats in Brussels frequently have overweening control over many elements of British economy and society. Those in favor of Brexit claim the EU parliament and courts make 60 percent of British laws and issue inter alia regulations regarding factory and office work conditions, farm work, oil drilling, cancer research, and doctors’ working hours. Bureaucrats are never loved, and foreign bureaucrats are even less lovable than indigenous nitpickers.
Moreover, the EU has hardly presented an attractive face during the past year. Observers have seen rioters in France obstructing the transportation system. Terrorists have demonstrated the vulnerability of continental Europe.
Refugees—a million in 2015—keep coming, and the U.K. feels vulnerable. They swamp social services and generate fears of terrorism at worst and create an indigestible societal lump demanding citizen-level benefits at best.
The euro stumbles from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis, with Greece unable to address its economic problems without massive bailouts. Europeans appear unwilling to give serious support to Ukraine (let alone stand up to Putin’s Russia).
And there is a wild card in the game. During an April London visit including Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday, President Obama urged Britain to stay in the EU. He stated bluntly that the U.K. would be at the end of the line for negotiating a new trade agreement should it choose to exit.
Unsurprisingly, Obama evoked furious reaction from exit supporters, who stated unequivocally that he was interfering with the referendum and recommending actions diminishing British sovereignty the United States would never accept. Frankly, the president was neither subtle nor adroit—happily the Clinton administration was not so ham-handed during the 1995 Quebec referendum when positing our views on whether Quebec should stay in Canada.
To be sure, “exit” would have consequences. But nobody knows what they would be—or whether dire or inconsequential. Life has consequences. Much would depend on the alacrity with which new trade/economic/fiscal arrangements could be concluded.
Could the particularly neuralgic elements (Brussels bureaucratic interference in daily life and its disproportionate costs; immigrant/refugee free access) be mitigated? Could Britain’s relations with Europe be rearranged to assure British belief in their unique national history?
Or even more pointedly, does Brexit matter? Will there be an EU in anything resembling its current form a decade from now?
David T. Jones is a retired U.S. State Department senior foreign service career officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as adviser for two Army chiefs of staff. Among his books is “Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn From Each Other.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.