A Reluctant Case Against Brexit: Three Central Questions

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Brexit threatens the UK's constitutional integrity.

Oscar Wilde quipped that socialism would take too many evenings. So, too, would the process of Britain leaving the EU, let alone adapting to life outside it. For Britain to vote to leave in its referendum next week would neither be end of the world, nor a lurch into isolation, contrary to the overblown claims of Remain advocates. Whatever else happens, Britain is likely to remain a major power, measured on most yardsticks aside from landmass. A Brexit would, however, invite a set of extra costs, risks and problems that would not be worth the modest gain of clawing back some additional control. A withdrawal would probably deplete Britain’s sovereignty in terms of actual ability to govern rather than increase it.

The referendum itself is taking too many evenings. It has been a dismal exercise of misinformation and hysteria, filled to the brim with loose Hitler analogies, argument by association, wild theories of an efficient deep state at work and a strange mixture of jingoism with self-loathing. A prime minister who insisted only months ago that Britain could carry on successfully outside the EU has discovered that this would be a fatal error. He now opines leaving a transnational union is tantamount to isolationism that would trigger mass unemployment and that staying in is the only patriotic choice. The low-quality debate grows from cynical politics that is launched as much to manage internal divisions with the ruling Conservative party as to address a pivotal issue. The experiment in plebiscitary democracy may not settle anything.

The Leave camp, helmed by the rump figure Boris Johnson and a demagogue or two, peddles falsehoods. It deliberately conflates internal EU immigration with immigration from the rest of the world, pretending that the right of free movement within the EU is part and parcel of the separate question of Middle Eastern refugees. Leave makes the unfounded claim that EU membership denies Britain the right to turn away terrorist suspects and criminals from the rest of the world (it doesn’t), that Britain would be powerless to veto Turkish EU accession (the opposite is true) and that internal EU rules leave the island state helpless in the face of refugee tides (they don’t). Leaving the EU would return control over free internal movement, yet costs Britain some sharp security tools, such as the European Arrest Warrant, and access to databases. There are tradeoffs that barely intrude into the debate. In this race to the bottom, the Leave camp is several lengths ahead.

The debate does not need more demagoguery or passion. It needs more reason, and a touch less drama, especially in a week when a fascist gunned down an MP. Above all, we need a sober account of what is at stake. Consider three central questions: geopolitics, sovereignty, and Britain’s own union.

The first question is one of geopolitics. At the core of the Leave case is an odd contradiction. On one hand, it portrays the EU as a repressive and suffocating institution. At the hands of Leavers, the EU is run by and for an unrelenting class of transnational elites, bent on an ever-closer union, more control and more dilution of national sovereignty from member states to the Eurocrat class. It is an EU that is aggressively political.

Yet what kind of international life would follow Brexit and the departure from the world’s second largest single market? The Leavers promise a utopian afterlife: a prosperous set of relations with EU states, who will be bound to follow their commercial interests and trade freely with Britain. British businesses will be alleviated of EU regulations. The EU will cut favorable deals. In other words, economic concerns will trump politics. Not all Leavers expect a painless Brexit, however. The mainstream campaign promises voters that somehow, it will be all right on the night. The same EU that Leavers portray as an ever-expanding class empire will become an economic zone based not on geopolitics, but on the rational maximization of wealth instead.

In other words, Leave promises Britons simplicity and rapid prosperity that is impossible according to its own portrayal of the EU. Yet the EU will probably not react to a British departure by retiring quietly into the night. From Brussels’ perspective, Britain’s departure could be a domino that begins the fragmentation of the whole project. Like most institutions, the EU is committed to its own survival. In the event of Brexit, the EU will not shrug its shoulders. It will make negotiations difficult and slow for Britain in order to set a precedent that will deter further departures. The president of the EU has warned that a British withdrawal would be treated as a desertion, and that there would be consequences. Economics would not trump geopolitics. Do we need further warnings?