TL;DR: »Britain’s choice in the Brexit referendum will transform the EU either way, but the UK will be affected much more if it chooses to leave – and not for the better.«
The European Union (EU) is, again, moving to another breaking point. After the Greek showdown last year and the ongoing influx of refugees from the war-torn and economically failing Middle East, we are now onto the long awaited In/Out referendum on 23 June in the UK. The referendum might look a bit odd against the troubles of last year or the heated debate over refugees today, more like a form of national self-indulgence of a former island empire compared to the global questions of economic and geopolitical imbalance Europe is facing. However, the referendum about Britain remaining in or leaving the EU is going to change this association of European states either way – and it is going to change Britain.
To be in or not to be in, that is the question
First of all, it is important to understand about what the British will have to decide. They will not decide directly on the negotiation outcomes secured by David Cameron in Brussels earlier this year. On the ballot there will be one question: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’ And two possible answers: either ‘Remain a member of the European Union’ or ‘Leave the European Union’. There is no third option that might read ‘Lets go back to Brussels and renegotiate again’. The British unanimously have to decide to remain in the EU with the settlement Cameron came home with or to leave – but leave for good. This is not similar to e.g. Ireland’s vote on the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 that the Irish turned down first and where given renegotiations afterwards to approve it in 2009. Lisbon was an amendment to the existing treaties about the EU; the vote was not about leaving but about approving a treaty change for all EU member states. The British referendum is not about a change of treaties; it is solely about remaining or leaving.
Britain in Europe
Lets assume the British are the heirs of John Locke and his common sense and vote to remain in the EU. After the general sigh of relief from Lisbon to Helsinki on 24 June, the UK will get what its political elites, and probably the majority of the population always wanted: a place within the EU and at its sidelines at the same time. With the UK now formally exempt from committing to an ‘ever closer union’ and all the federal baggage associated with it, the British will have started the most substantial reform in Europe since the signing of the Rome Treaties in 1957. The post-referendum EU will organize itself not in multiple speeds to greater integration but in concentric spheres, from integration to association to cooperation: a European core with the Eurozone, an expanse region with non-Eurozone EU members like Britain or Denmark, and a European periphery of various cooperative arrangements with non-EU countries like Iceland, Norway, Ukraine, and Turkey. The Eurozone will then move toward closer integration, possibly a financial government. The expanse region will pretty much stay in a UK-kind of fashion, incorporated into the common market but clearly outside issues like a transfer union or a social union. Britain will remain an important EU member when it comes to international trade and foreign policy, two fields at which the British excel and will continue to punch above their national weight. Can the EU question be settled in the UK for at least a generation with a Remain vote? We have to be careful here, as the Scottish independence referendum and the ongoing discussions about Scotland’s place in the UK are showing. A strong and decisive Remain vote might deliver on that front. In the YouGov polls over the last year on that matter, the narrowest lead of Remain (when Remain was in front) was about two points from Leave. The most convincing lead was twenty points, but only in one poll, with the average lead by around eight points. So anything above eight points might count as sufficient to settle the discussion for a long time.
Very well, alone… very alone
Of course, stressing common sense in times of turbulent change might be a far stretch. And given that all YouGov polls in 2016 show the Leave vote in front is sobering. Whenever the Leave vote is ahead, its lead is mostly narrow, between one and three points, which is a sign of volatility and the unsettled nature of the matter. But if we assume that the British people will, however narrowly or convincingly, decide to leave the EU, the world will look different – for the UK. From 24 June onwards a similar but much deeper process of untangling between the EU and the UK would start. Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty about the withdrawal from the EU would request the UK’s government to notify the European Council of its intention to leave. Then the EU and the UK would negotiate a withdrawal agreement that would settle everything that follows, especially how the access to the common market, the free movement of people, capital, goods and service shall be handled in the future. If no agreement can be reached, the UK would exit the EU after a period of two years time after David Cameron notified the European Council. Any agreement would have to be approved by a qualified majority of the European Council i.e. a majority of EU member state’s governments. Needless to say that this has never been done before so there are not many clues as to what exactly will become part of such a withdrawal agreement. What can be said, however, is that the ideas of people like Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson, that the EU would hand a leaving UK the most favorable conditions to access the common market, are mere phantasies that bear no resemblance to reality. Switzerland for example, that is often cited by Leave advocates, is hardly a case in point here. The alpine nation, who never wanted to become an EU member in the first place, has to comply with all the rules of the common market but has no say about these rules.
An island once again
As hard it is to comprehend for the former island empire, the UK would be transformed from a rule-maker to a rule-taker if it leaves. When you do the math, things become rather simple: the common market without Britain consists of 444 million people (and customers), the UK has 64 million i.e. around fourteen percent. The GDP of the common market is 15.550 trillion US$ as of 2014, the UK’s stands at 2.945 trillion US$ i.e. around 19 percent. It is very clear who will call the shots economically in any withdrawal agreement. This becomes even clearer politically as there will be not much sympathy for giving the UK what it wants when leaving – especially as the French are about to embark on a heated presidential election campaign next year, with Marine LePen of the extreme right-wing Front National advocating a break-up of the Eurozone. But even if the EU, for no apparent reason, would be much nicer to the UK than to Switzerland or other non-EU countries in Europe, Britain would no longer be a deciding member of the biggest economic club on the planet that holds about sixteen percent of global trade – over fourteen percent by China and ten percent of the United States. To honestly assume, without blinking, that the UK will be able to make new, more favorable trade deals with other countries outside the EU is beyond comprehension.
Britain’s role in the world
The same accounts for the geopolitical standing of the UK in world affairs. Its role has been diminished in the second half of the 20th century but Britain still punches above its weight with its permanent seat a the UN Security Council and its leading role in NATO and the EU. Leaving the EU would have an effect here as well. In recent years, the USA has looked increasingly to Germany when it comes to European politics. Militarily, the French have started to supplant the British as America’s brother in arms. In a post-referendum, post-Britain Europe, who will the US call in times of geopolitical tensions? Certainly not Downing Street but whoever is at the center of European politics – and that will most likely be Germany and France. It is probably not far fetched to assume that Germany and France will start working feverishly from 24 June onwards for building a tighter and more strongly interconnected European core around the Eurozone and the founding members of the European Economic Community of 1957. The idea of ‘Core Europe’ was always strong in some German and French political circles and it will surely be propelled by a Leave vote of the UK.
A divided Kingdom cannot stand
But lets focus again on domestic politics within Britain. When comparing opinion polls about the EU Referendum, a schism within the UK becomes apparent. While England (and Wales for that matter) fluctuate between Remain and Leave, Scotland and Northern Ireland remain staunchly in favor of EU membership. In both countries over the last year, Leave came nowhere near of getting a majority. The average lead of Remain over Leave in Scotland was around 25 points, in Northern Ireland around 40 points. While Scotland might have another Independence referendum if the UK leaves, with a majority in Scotland wanting to remain, the situation in Northern Ireland has by far more tensions. It is here where the UK would share a land border with the EU and where the new post-referendum realities would be felt most severe. The ramifications for the Good Friday Agreement are totally unclear. However that might play out, the constitutional question of the UK will loom even larger after a Leave vote.
Britain as Switzerland or as Great Britain
All of this does not imply that the UK could not survive or even thrive outside the EU. It might manage to become a larger version of Switzerland or Norway after a few very rough initial years – if that is what the British political elite and the British people want. Given the history and the historic feelings of the British, this might be even harder to comprehend. The former imperial nation, that withstood the continent’s greatest dictator in the most desperate of times, is receding to the sidelines of European and global politics? To me it becomes more and more strange to contemplate why the British would want to leave the EU at a moment, when everything they ever wanted – having access to the common market but standing on the sidelines when it comes to an ‘ever closer union’ – is handed to them on a plate.
The nationalist dreams of Right and Left
How did we get here? What is puzzling is not just the very real possibility of Britain leaving the EU right now. To me it is this strange alignment of the political Right and Left in the UK about this issue. The Right is playing the keys of national sovereignty and self-determination, hardly masking the rhetoric against foreigners and immigrants, while the Left chimes in and adds notions of anti-austerity and the EU’s inherent neoliberalism, all uniting in the crescendo of democracy in Britain against ‘un-democracy’ in the EU. First of all, national sovereignty is a 19th century fairy tale in the interconnected world of the 21st century. No single issue that makes the headlines these days – be it the influx of refugees, the geopolitical situation in the Middle East, the tensions with Russia, the rise of China as a global power, or the struggle against human-made climate change – can be addressed in a national reference frame. No single nation can do anything about any of these challenges, yet they affect every single nation. There is no sovereignty unless you pool your resources and political as well as economic clout. The transnational association we call the European Union is the instrument to reassure sovereignty among its member nations on the basis of equals. If you want sovereignty, you have to fight for it within the framework provided by the EU. Outside it is good-bye and good riddance.
The mercurial dream of Europe
Europe and its union are all about trade. At the heart of the Rome Treaties from 1957 that laid the ground for the European Economic Community, was the belief that trade amongst nations, amongst former enemies, is the best means to ensure both prosperity and peace for all. History has proved the founding fathers of the EU right. In European history, the EU is an unprecedented case of success. The core of this success is the common market and in order to make this market work for the benefit of all, it needs the free movement of capital, goods, services and, most important, people. The common market is the one area in which the EU has exclusive legislative and executive powers. To frame common market policies as neoliberal is like blaming the rain for making the ground wet. The kind of economic policies applied within the EU, on the other hand, is predominantly a national question. The EU has no power here. If you dislike austerity, than it might be wiser to campaign against the national governments that advocate austerity measures. If the majority of the British people want a different economic policy, address Downing Street but not the Rue La Loi. Otherwise, blaming Brussels for the economic failures of your national government is just lazy populism.
On European democracy
Not just in Britain but also throughout the continent on which democracy saw the light of day, it has become a commonplace to accuse the EU of being undemocratic. If ‘democratic’ refers to accountable to the people, then this accusation can hardly stand. The problem with the EU and understanding its form of democracy is similar to the problem of understanding the meaning of sovereignty in an interconnected world. How is democracy organized in the EU? People vote for their national parliaments and directly or indirectly for their national governments. The national governments assign the members of the Council of Ministers as the Upper House of the EU legislative as well as the members of the European Council, where heads of state or governments of EU members are forming a strategic board for the future of European policies. The European Council selects the head of the European Commission, the executive branch of the EU, and the European Parliament, voted for by the same people who vote their national parliaments, has to approve the commission – and can reject it or call it off. The legislative process works between the Ministers’ Council and the European Parliament. What exactly is ‘undemocratic’ in this process? The EU is neither a nation state with its specific form of democracy nor a distant assembly of nation states like the United Nations. To give a very technical, yet encompassing definition: the EU is a transnational system of multi-level democratic governance in Europe. It might not be the best way of organizing democracy on a continental level amongst countries with very different historical and cultural backgrounds. Yet it is the best system we came up with so far and compared to Europe’s postwar situation, it delivered all its promises made in 1957: prosperity and peace for all.
Being a longstanding ‘Britophile’ myself, I honestly hope that common sense, this great British invention, will prevail in the coming months leading to the referendum date. And that Britain decides to remain a strong part of the greatest European peace project of all times.
*An abbreviated and edited version of this article has been published by The Globalist on 29 February 2016.