Why Britain’s possible ‘Brexit’ from the EU matters to the U.S.

Let’s turn away from the national obsession that is the 2016 U.S. presidential election to look at another contest the world is watching. In two months, citizens of the United Kingdom will be asked to vote on a major question regarding their future—should the UK stay in the European Union?

Campaigning has officially begun for parties on both sides of the June 23 referendum issue to argue their cases to the voting public, and polling shows that UK citizens are split evenly down the middle, with many still on the fence. The outcome of the vote—the question is widely known as “Brexit,” for Britain exiting the EU—will have long-range implications for the economy and stability of the UK, as well as countries throughout Europe.

The forces backing the exit (the “Leave” campaign) argue that it’s not fair for Britain and the rest of the UK to pay a higher share for the running of the European Union than many of the other 28 member countries. They don’t like the added regulations imposed on the UK by EU governmental bodies. They say the profit from open trade isn’t worth the cost or the amount of regulation, and they predict a jobs boom for British natives if fewer immigrants can enter the country.

Those in favor of staying in the EU (the “Remain” campaign) predict economic calamity if the UK leaves. They’re afraid that the city of London, one of the world’s leading financial centers, will see devastating losses, as the UK would no longer be an entry into European trade. They also claim that every family in the UK will be 4,300 pounds poorer if there’s a Brexit. The Remain camp sees huge job losses as manufacturing moves to lower-cost countries in Europe. Negotiating a new trade deal with European partners will be tough and could take years.

In other words, both sides are describing boom times if their side wins and economic Armageddon if their side loses.

Why should we care, you may ask. The answer is twofold. Any change in Europe’s economic balance will boomerang onto this country in matters of trade and security, and will produce a more unstable Europe. Just as important, if the UK leaves the EU, that indicates a victory for the nativism crowd and its anti-immigration, anti-Islam sentiment—a school of thought that is all too influential in this country already.

In the 2015 UK general election, Prime Minister David Cameron promised that if he won, he would give voters a chance to decide whether to stay in the European Union. He was facing anti-EU pressure from members of his own Conservative Party as well as the rising anti-immigrant sentiment in the United Kingdom Independent Party, or UKIP. The last time British voters faced such a referendum was 1975, when the EU was still called the European Economic Community or Common Market, and the decision to stay passed by a two-to-one ratio.

The BBC has a clear explanation of the ballot measure, which will be a one-question referendum. The European Union is a political as well as an economic union. The 28 countries in the EU have open borders with each other—travelers can freely and easily cross into other countries and immigrants within the EU can settle in another EU country. There is free movement throughout the EU of goods and services, with no tariffs. The EU is Britain’s biggest trading partner.

Only 19 EU countries adopted the euro (the UK kept the pound sterling), but there are still other EU entities that affect all of the member nations, such as the European Central Bank and the European Commission and Parliament, which propose and pass laws.

Those wanting to leave the EU give several reasons for wanting a Brexit. They charge that EU laws place too many restrictions on the UK, often superseding British law, and that EU regulations hamper the British economy. They object to the large amount of money spent on EU bureaucracy, especially the monthly trips for the 751 members of the European Parliament.

Might as well offer a musical version of why Britain should leave the EU:

This video (often described as “cringe-worthy”) has not been well received. According to a Washington Post story: “The reactions on YouTube weren’t kind: ‘I would be surprised if we weren’t kicked out of Europe after this,’ wrote one user in the comments section under the video.”

Cameron, who strongly favors staying in the EU, visited capitals throughout Europe in recent months and was able to secure some changes and guarantees in the terms of Britain’s EU membership. The UK will be able to keep the pound as its currency and will not have to fund eurozone bailouts. London’s enormous financial services sector can remain free to operate outside of eurozone regulations. But he didn’t get everything he wanted on limiting benefits for foreign workers.

The UK contributes between 8.5 billion and 13 billion pounds annually to the EU budget, but gets back only an estimated 4.5 billion pounds in regional development grants and payments to farmers, according to Full Fact, an independent group fact-checking contradictory statements and claims about the EU referendum. (Germany and France actually pay higher percentages.) There is no way to measure the trade benefits. But renegotiating new trade agreements wouldn’t be easy.

Then there’s the problem of anti-immigrant sentiment. Such feelings in Europe did not start with the current Syrian refugee crisis. There are far-right parties across Europe, and they started gaining broader support in the early 1990s, becoming more energized during the euro crisis in 2011 as well as after the major terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. These far-right parties are gaining ground in nearly a dozen countries, from the Front National in France, which nearly won in recent local elections in several areas, to the Alternative für Deutschland party in Germany, which made serious inroads against Chancellor Angela Merkel in the last election.

The UK is no different. UKIP has made it clear it wants out of the EU. Its manifesto calls for limits to immigration, including a five-year ban on unskilled workers, and a cap on immigrants altogether. It also demands a five-year wait for immigrants to collect government benefits and insists that immigrants must have their own private health insurance. Here’s an example of the strength of its power: UKIP came in first place in the 2014 election on who would represent the UK in the European Parliament, the first time a party other than Labour or Conservative had come out on top. UKIP’s power is currently waning, but the anti-immigrant sentiment remains the same.

Compared with the xenophobic rhetoric coming out of the mouths of many Republicans in this country, especially those running for president, the UKIP demands actually sound tame. No one is talking about building a wall or banning everyone of a certain religion, using language scapegoating immigrants, refugees, and people of color in general.

Still, if those in the Leave campaign are successful in their quest, U.S. Republicans are likely to see that as a vindication of their anti-immigrant positions. Real estate mogul Donald Trump would describe Brexit as a YUUUUGE victory. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz would see it as a confirmation of his proposal to ban birthright citizenship (even as he was born in Canada, of course). The rise of Europe’s far-right parties has even been described as “The march of Europe’s little Trumps.”

Repercussions from the destabilization of Europe were the UK to leave the EU could be severe, as a piece in Vox describes:

But because the debate in the UK is happening at time when the political foundations of Europe are already very weak, a Brexit now has the potential to dramatically hobble the EU. It would remove one of the EU’s most powerful countries, force the EU to absorb itself in the process of divorce for many years, and set a precedent for EU withdrawal that other anti-EU populist parties would certainly follow. …

A chaotic, unstable Europe would be unable (and probably unwilling) to help the U.S. confront geopolitical challenges around the world, including the chaos in the Middle East and rising tensions in Asia. And the economic disruption that would likely result from the breakup of the EU would only exacerbate the problem.

The Washington Post also has an excellent analysis of the effects of a successful Brexit. “In the best case, doing so would hurt their economy for the next 5 to 10 years, and leave them no better off after that,” writes economic affairs reporter Matt O’Brien. “And in the worst, it would send political shockwaves through Europe that would dwarf the economic ones hitting Britain.”

The bigger question isn’t how Britain would get along without Europe. It’s whether Europe could get along at all without Britain. … Now, the European Union could work without Britain, but it wouldn’t work as well. The balance of power between France and Germany, between pro-government and pro-market policies, between people who want to centralize more power in Brussels and the ones who don’t, would be broken. It’d be a European Union whose benefits might not seem so worth the costs—especially if Britain showed that you could do better without it.

Turnout for the Brexit referendum is bound to be high. For one thing, the rest of the world votes at much higher rates than Americans. For another, it’s a simple, one-question referendum, and one that will affect every citizen of the UK. Don’t forget that in the Scottish independence vote of 2014, a record level of 85 percent of Scots turned out to vote, with some small communities voting at the 100 percent level. The best voter turnout in modern U.S. elections was in the post-Watergate contest of 1976, when 65 percent of U.S. voters came to the polls.

British media are running daily poll trackers on Brexit sentiment. Online betting on election outcomes is legal in the UK, so sites such as Ladbrokes are doing a booming business, and you can check the changing odds daily.

I asked a few British friends what they thought. Longtime journalist and political commentator Rupert Cornwell writes for the Independent and is based in Washington, covering U.S. politics rather than UK matters. But he thought the benefits of staying outweigh leaving, and that the EU would be hurt even more than the UK by a Brexit. “In the end, inertia will win out, and we’ll stay in the EU,” he said.

Here’s the opinion of Alan Ankers, a retired police officer in the north of England near York:

Despite the plethora of coverage regarding the referendum, I have really not been impressed by either side. It appears very much a case of “the unknown” if we vote to leave. There is a lot of scaremongering on both sides with a very heavy leaning by financial experts throughout the world suggesting that should we leave the Union, then there will be an adverse impact on not only the British economy but also that of the rest of the world. Unfortunately, due to an absence of any detailed strategy by the supporters of the Leave Campaign as to how the UK would manage such a situation, I am left with a rather conservative view that we stay with what we know!

President Obama has made no secret of his opinion on Brexit—he thinks the UK should stay in the EU, and he made his case during this week’s visit to the UK. He reiterated that call in an op-ed in the Telegraph, reminding the UK to remember the “special relationship” with the U.S. Obama said EU membership had magnified Britain’s place in the world and made the European Union stronger and more outward looking. “The nations that make their presence felt on the world stage aren’t the nations that go it alone,” Obama said in a news conference with Cameron.

Obama has received criticism for interfering with a foreign country’s election process from other British leaders, but don’t forget—the British Parliament “debated” whether Donald Trump should be banned from entering the UK, even though that debate had no legal standing (they did get to call him a “wazzock,” though).

Here’s another key role the UK plays that affects the United States: Britain’s role in the EU also ensures European cooperation in matters of security. Britain’s support was key in convincing most of the rest of Europe (and the whole EU) to back sanctions against Iran before the Iran nuclear agreement and against Russia after the annexation of Crimea.

No matter what happens, at least Brits can be sure of one thing, according to a Q&A section of the BBC article. Even if the UK leaves the EU, Brits still will be eligible to enter Eurovision, the wildly popular annual song competition with entrants from 44 countries. It draws nearly 200 million television viewers and allows phone voting from each country (the essence of democracy!). It has brought us such international winners as ABBA and the bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst. The first round starts again on May 10, and I, for one, think it’s high time it’s broadcast in the U.S. as well.

Maybe a Eurovision Union? Then everyone will be happy.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on April 24, 2016.

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