A great question mark hangs over Europe these days: would Europe be better off if Brexit were to happen next June? Or, to put it another way, would both Europe and Britain be better off if the British electorate were to go for Brexit and divorce from the European Union?
I believe that the answer to these questions is negative and that it is unfortunate for the British to be voting, as it seems, with their guts rather than on the basis of a reasoned and honest assessment of the pros and cons of Brexit.
It looks like a majority of the British people want to cut its moorings with Europe as a reaction to the overwhelming influx of immigrants who are crashing the gates of southern European countries and resolutely marching north. Half the people fear that Britain’s distinctive identity is undermined by membership in the European Union. For 40 years, average immigration hovered around 40,000 a year. Last year, net immigration reached 300,000.
The strange thing is that the majority of new immigrants are from Europe: the Rumanians top the list with 165,000, followed by the Polish with 122,000 and – surprise! -the Italians with 60,000 and the Spanish with 54,000. The Indians come in with 37,000 and the Pakistanis with 14,000. If Britain were to vote “out of Europe,”, European nationals would still come in large numbers and the British economy would still need foreign labor. In short, closing the borders is no solution.
Not surprisingly, a large number of British people would welcome the ability to preserve a big chunk of their sovereignty or at least the appearance of it. The European Union has always been seen as ruled by a Brussels cabal of bureaucrats imposing their job-killing regulations and austerity rules that can only be harmful in times of economic and especially labor distress. The austerity packages of Brussels, and more specifically the rather insolent German insistence on fiscal rigor, have impoverished more than a member country such as Greece and irritated the leaders of troubled countries starting with Italy. Insulating Britain from German impositions can be looked upon as a good step but then the chickens of Brexit come home to roost when London’s City – regarded by the same Germans as the seat of a “financial casino”– stands to lose more than expected. Such fears are revealed when the London Stock Exchange negotiates with the Germans to link up with the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, in the shadow of the European Bank.
Once the Brits vote themselves out of Europe, the Europeans could be better off in some ways, starting with the ability to withstand British pressures that are closely linked to American foreign policy and security considerations. To be sure, Britain has been pushing American-inspired neo-liberal economic policies that are suspect in the leading European capitals.
In fact, Britain is important to the United States not only for the “special relationship” that ties it to America but for the fact – emphasized by Richard Hass of the Council of Foreign Relations – that it can be counted on to support positions in Brussels “consistent, or at least not far from, those of the U.S.” To be sure, the “special relationship” has frayed following the British Parliament’s refusal to support military action in Syria at a time when Britain is destined to have less influence in the world. In short, the self-imposed isolation of Britain would translate into a more dominant role for Germany in Europe, a development that is sure to bring more fragmentation in the European Union.
An adviser of Boris Johnson, the mayor of London who has taken a strong stand in favor of Brexit with the brazen strategy of pushing Prime Minister Cameron out of Downing Street, has stated that the choice is between a global Britain and an inward-looking, insular European Union.
One of the main arguments of the Brexit supporters is that the British would better off spending the EU contribution at home, funding pubic services. Moreover, they say, the new independent Britain could make better trade deals that would boost exports. There is little talk about how much Britain would miss in terms of European funding for economic projects, research, education and so forth. The pie in the sky propaganda of the Brexit apostles links powerfully with the stiff British character that favors standing alone against adversity. And yet, the reality of the new world, dramatically changed by globalization and the highly disruptive forces of nationalism and populism, is that union and solidarity are still the essential pillars of Western civilization.
The final discouraging conclusion is that Britain seems to be torn just like the United States where the strident political and social polarization is handicapping its future. At a time when the world is becoming hostage to the devastating and unsolvable conflict in the Middle East, to Russian aggression and to the exploding crisis of uncontrollable migrations, one can only bewail the time when European integration promised prosperity and stability for what was confidently named “Atlantic community.”