British Prime Minister David Cameron recently set June 23 as the date for the highly-anticipated referendum to decide the future of the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union (EU). The announcement followed two days of negotiations with EU leaders, from which Cameron emerged with an agreement limiting some EU power over the country in an attempt to appease the domestic “euroskeptics” calling for the United Kingdom to leave the Union. The arguably insubstantial deal––which gives the United Kingdom some power to limit EU-mandated benefits for migrants, guarantees protection for countries outside of the eurozone, and exempts the United Kingdom from an “ever-closer union”––is largely cosmetic and will do little to address the underlying concerns of those who fear that the EU’s reach has encroached too far into British autonomy. However hollow, it does signal that the EU is ready to reform its institutions, and the United Kingdom should lead that conversation from within the Union rather than outside of it. Those in favor of a British exit––or “Brexit”––are idealistic in believing that withdrawing from the EU will bring greater benefits than disadvantages. A British vote to leave the EU would threaten the country’s economic prosperity, disrupt the balance of power in Europe, feed into growing political extremism on the continent, and damage the transatlantic relationship.
In exiting the EU, the United Kingdom would face its biggest economic loss in exclusion from the European Single Market. Free trade within the Union facilitates the export of British goods to the rest of EU, the United Kingdom’s largest trading partner. If the United Kingdom leaves the Single Market, trade barriers would inevitably be erected, threatening millions of British jobs––especially in the country’s manufacturing industry––that would likely move to lower-cost EU countries. The United Kingdom could potentially negotiate a free trade agreement (FTA) with the European Union, but the process is long, tedious, and unpredictable.
The United Kingdom may wish to retain access to the Single Market from the outside as Norway and Switzerland do. However, the mandated funds would amount to only about 9% less than the United Kingdom’s current required payment to the EU. Given that Britain’s EU membership fee makes up 0.5% of its GDP, such a decrease is trivial––yet, reclaiming financial independence seems to be Brexit campaigners’ main economic rallying cry for withdrawal. They either ignore or fail to understand that the financial boost of being an EU member outweighs the membership fees that Britain pays. Politically, the United Kingdom risks becoming isolated from conversations on important international issues if it chooses to leave the continental forum for discussion. With weaker influence in Brussels, the country would have a lesser role in major initiatives spearheaded by the United States and the EU. Additionally, an EU without the United Kingdom would see increasing influence for countries like Germany, who would have to rise to fill the political vacuum left by Britain. At a politically and economically turbulent time for the continent, losing the powerful voice of the United Kingdom at the table will surely complicate the power structure of the EU and lead to a less equalized distribution of power, threatening the EU’s capacity to build consensus and present a unified front to the international community.
The euroskepticism driving this campaign can be found in the growing movement of nationalism and populism sweeping across the whole continent––not just the United Kingdom. A decision by the British people to leave the EU would represent a staggering vote of no confidence in the Union. Coming from one of the institution’s oldest and most powerful members, this would send strong anti-Europe signals throughout the continent and strengthen the growing euroskeptic sentiment that has given rise to extreme right-wing, populist parties. Furthermore, the blow to the EU economy that a Brexit would inevitably deliver might cause more reason––valid or not––for dissatisfaction with the workings of the EU and increased demands for further European disintegration. Leaving the EU would also bring the sensitive issue of Scottish independence back to the forefront of British politics. The anti-EU sentiment in the United Kingdom is not ubiquitous; Scotland, whose population voted last year not to secede from the United Kingdom, generally views the EU more favorably than the rest of the country does. Pulling out of the EU might prompt the Scottish government to hold a second referendum, and the pro-European Scots may very well vote to split partly for the purpose of rejoining the EU. Aside from the territorial flames in Northern Ireland that such a move would undoubtedly fan, separatist movements across all of Europe could gain momentum, potentially prompting a wave of fragmentation on the continent.
Internationally, the United States has a vested interest in seeing Britain remain a part of the EU. As our strongest ally, the United Kingdom acts as a natural bridge between the United States and Europe. A Brexit would therefore weaken not just U.S.-U.K. relations––U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman has explicitly stated that the United States would not negotiate an FTA with a Britain outside of the EU––but also the overall transatlantic relationship. The United Kingdom is the United States’ key advocate inside Brussels; given that a Brexit will result in a less influential United Kingdom, the United States would also have a minimized voice on the continent. Selfishly speaking, a United Kingdom separated from the rest of Europe is a much less advantageous ally.
No country has ever chosen to leave the European Union since its founding. In an extremely tumultuous time for the continent, the United Kingdom would be taking a massive gamble as it travels into unchartered territory with highly uncertain outcomes. Leaving the EU amounts to nothing more than a political experiment to superficially address unfounded fears about the EU. Moreover, it is about thirty years too late for such a bold move––EU institutions and laws are too heavily ingrained in the British political and economic structures. If the United Kingdom wants to develop a reformed relationship with the rest of Europe, it can best do so within the European Union while it still has friends and influence.