Britain Should Vote to Stay

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Photographer: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

British voters face a momentous choice. Thursday's referendum on whether to remain a member of the European Union matters much more than a mere general election: It will set a course not just for the next few years but for decades, and not just for the U.K. but for Europe.

What the choice should be is clear. Britain should vote to stay -- for its own sake and for Europe's as well.

QuickTake Will Britain Leave the EU?

For all its flaws -- and it has plenty -- the European project has helped to secure peace, prosperity and democratic government across a continent riven for centuries by war. Most recently, after the collapse of communism, the EU extended the realm of liberal capitalism across much of the Soviet Union's former empire. These are remarkable achievements, and too much taken for granted -- itself a mark of the EU's success.

Threats to Europe's safety and well-being will continue to arise, and its unity will only become more valuable. A British exit jeopardizes this solidarity directly, and subsequent repercussions of a vote to leave could jeopardize it even more. An EU without Britain would be a weaker union at once, and a wider unraveling might start to gather force. It's an alarming prospect, or ought to be.

Losing sight of this bigger picture, the referendum debate has concentrated on narrower and more immediate questions: the economic effects of exit, control over immigration, and the EU's power to make laws and rules that bind its members. Exchanges between the two sides have been increasingly ill-tempered and unenlightening. Neither side has much to be proud of, but the Remain campaign has made the better case.

Brexit unquestionably puts the economy at risk. The U.K. depends heavily on the EU for trade and investment. It would have to negotiate new trade terms with European nations and with its non-EU partners, too (they currently trade with Britain under EU provisions). This would be a complex business, taking years. In the end, the volume of trade would likely be lower.

Amid all the uncertainty, European investment in the U.K. would decline, and it might never come all the way back, because the U.K. would be a less attractive platform for EU operations. Free movement of skilled workers to and from the EU, another great benefit to the British economy, would stop as well. It's impossible to be precise about these costs, because everything depends on agreements yet to be negotiated. But there are many creditable and unrefuted studies showing significant and lasting economic harm.

Even so, according to most polls, the Leave campaign has been gaining ground, stressing concerns over immigration and needless EU encroachments on Britain's ability to make its own laws. Those complaints -- heard across the union, not just in Britain -- cannot be dismissed.

If the EU's leaders were better listeners, they would have had more success in tamping down anti-EU sentiment and the U.K.'s Leave campaign might have made less headway. But the crucial point is that these issues can be resolved through reform within a strong and united EU. Dismantling the whole project, as Britain's Leave campaigners propose, is a reckless and disproportionate response.

Britain needs Europe, and Europe needs Britain. The last several decades of stability should make that clear. The relationship is salvageable -- but not if one party files for divorce. Britain should vote to stay.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.