The U.K. Is Fracturing Europe in Pursuit of Ghosts
The European Union is a strange beast, a 28-sided push-me-pull-you that Britons never loved, but needed. They still do, perhaps more than ever. Yet it is very possible that Britain will vote to leave on June 23, in pursuit of a fantasy.
The U.K., for example, would gain little of the freedom that euro-skeptics dream of -- Britain is far more European than they choose to think. The infamous "nanny state" would survive Brexit as surely as the proverbial cockroach in a nuclear explosion.
Equally, it is delusional to think that the U.K. can live in isolation from the rest of the EU -- the requirements of trade and the single market mean it will be regulated from Brussels with or without its consent. And it is just as delusional to think the U.K. would outlive a Brexit -- Scotland would in all probability leave Britain's union to stay with Europe's.
Nor would the U.K. gain financially -- the rest of the EU would make sure of that. How could they not? Fear of disintegration would reach fever pitch and the rest of the bloc's leaders would be determined to make sure that this, the EU's first departure, was an experience no other country should wish to emulate.
In exchange for these illusions, however, the U.K. is entertaining some very real risks -- to itself and the continent.
Indeed, Prime Minister David Cameron's tactics may already have damaged the EU's fabric, at a moment when multiple crises -- from financial, to refugee to Russian -- are pulling hard at the seams of the union. That's because he has introduced not one, but two firsts to the EU: calling a referendum on whether to leave, and making that dependent on a renegotiation of the bloc's terms.
This isn't about the substance of the deal Cameron secured with so much effort in Brussels last week, which is largely symbolic. The precedent is important for other reasons.
Never before has one country been allowed to come to the other 27 members with a raft of demands and, in effect, blackmail them into any level of agreement by holding a pistol to its own head. The EU, like any international organization, is the result of deals and trade-offs. In this negotiation, one country, the U.K., was alone in making demands. The only negotiation involved how much of those demands it could have -- not what it would have to give in exchange.
That's a seductive model for other governments to follow, especially populist ones: Call a referendum on whether to leave, or to accept some important change to the EU treaties, and then make a list of demands in exchange for trying to win it. In the coverage of Cameron's Brexit "reform" package across the continent (though not in the U.K.), this was a common theme. What is to stop Poland from following Cameron's precedent, or Hungary, or indeed Italy or France?
Those who despise the EU may yell: good riddance. Yet the political and strategic values on which the EU was built have rarely been more important to preserve. The idea that a continent with Europe's history should unite to make common rules of engagement, understanding that no action taken by one country can be without consequence for its neighbors, remains as valid as ever. This is something U.S. leaders understand fully, and it explains their firm opposition to a Brexit.
Pre-EU history -- in the form of larger powers entering into zero-sum contests for dominance on the continent, and smaller ones entering into conflicts that risk drawing in others -- may well return, and to some degree already is. If Germany didn't contest for influence over central and Eastern Europe with Russia, for example, it would collude with Russia against the interests of smaller countries. The Balkans, without the prospect of EU membership, would be particularly vulnerable to instability.
In many ways, the U.K.'s dance with Brexit is just one skirmish in this wider battle over whether the EU has the strength to provide collective solutions to the problems that face it, or fragments in that backlash against globalization that has produced Donald Trump in the U.S. and ultra-nationalist populists across Europe. On the euro, the bloc has failed to decide one way or another. On refugees, national responses that push the problem onto neighbors are emerging in the absence of a collective one. On responding to Russia's interventions in Ukraine, the EU is holding together -- so far.
By comparison to such questions of security and long term prosperity, the arguments of U.K. euroskeptics over budgetary contributions and regulation seem trivial. British voters should remember that if the U.K. stops pooling its sovereignty with Europe, their European neighbors will also stop pooling it with them -- and perhaps with each other. That's far more likely to produce an uglier world for the U.K. to contend with, than a better one.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To contact the author of this story:
Marc Champion at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at firstname.lastname@example.org