- By Will InbodenWill Inboden is Executive Director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Distinguished Scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.
In less than two weeks, British voters will determine the future of not just their nation, but of the European Union. Having just spent a couple weeks in Britain myself, the looming June 23 referendum on EU membership was inescapable, with signs and leaflets everywhere, and just about every conversation coming back to the vote in one way or another. The British Isles have long had an ambivalent relationship with the rest of Europe, and one way to conceive of the vote is as a geographic metaphor: Will Britiain privilege its identity as an island or as an extension of the continent?
At this juncture, no one really knows how the vote will go, although all parties and observers predict it will be close. A recent poll puts the “Leave” camp at 51 percent and the “Remain” camp at 49 percent, so related variables such as turnout and fervency (or tepidness) of support on each side will determine the final result. The stakes are considerable, perhaps even higher than many Americans realize. A British exit could lead to a fundamental restructuring or even dissolution of the EU. The U.K. is the EU’s second largest economy and its departure would substantially weaken the EU’s economic heft, while setting a precedent that could lead to a cascade of other disaffected member states either renegotiating their membership or possibly even leaving entirely.
A “Brexit” would also rock the British government. Prime Minister David Cameron has staked his political future on winning the Remain vote, and a vote to Remain would further solidify and bolster the Cameron government, following on his notable victories in the 2014 Scottish independence vote and the 2015 general election — whereas a loss would almost certainly mean Cameron’s departure from the Conservative leadership (a “Camexit”?) and replacement as prime minister, likely by his Tory rival Boris Johnson, erstwhile mayor of London and a singularly colorful figure in British politics. With a Brexit, Michael Gove, the current justice minister and one of the most articulate Tory proponents of Leave, would also likely ascend the leadership ranks, perhaps replacing Cameron’s loyal deputy, George Osbourne, as chancellor of the exchequer. (The Labor Party is largely parenthetical on the issue. While Labor mostly supports the Remain camp, as long as Labor is led by the cartoonishly hard-left and hapless Jeremy Corbyn, Labor will likely remain lost in the political wilderness, regardless of the vote outcome).
While passions are heated on both sides, one striking aspect of the debate is its level of sophistication. Sure, the rhetoric has been impassioned and occasionally overwrought, but it stems from a serious grappling with foundational issues. Our British cousins are wrestling in their body politic with substantial first-order concerns, and just about everyone I spoke with — from scholars to students, from senior government officials to cab drivers, and yes, the obligatory pub chatter — voiced a well-informed opinion. The debate cuts across many domains: politics, economics, security, history, and most fundamentally national identity.
In economic arguments, the two sides often seem to be talking past each other. The Remainers rightly point out that the EU’s free movement of goods, services, and labor has considerably enriched the British economy and would continue to do so, while the Leavers (also rightly) respond that the U.K. pays substantially more in annual dues and levies to Brussels than it receives in EU grants. All things considered, in strictly economic terms, the Remain side has a stronger case, especially since a renegotiation of a favorable trade regime for the U.K. post-Brexit would be much more arduous than many Leavers seem to admit. However, most economically-concerned citizens understandably base their voting decisions not on abstract macroeconomic figures, but on their own lived experience. In other words, the EU may be a net boon to the U.K.’s overall gross domestic product, but that is of little reassurance to a Liverpool dockworker who lost his job to a Polish migrant. (Perhaps one of our Shadow contributors with more economic expertise will weigh in here as well — this means you, Phil Levy!).
Hence the debate is about much more than economics. In particular, immigration and national identity most visibly animate many of the Leave proponents. Over the past two decades the British economy has offered better opportunity than much of the rest of Europe, especially the southern and eastern parts of the continent. That dynamism, in tandem with the EU’s open borders, has attracted a large number of new residents to Britain. Many of these new workers have contributed significantly to the British economy, while others have increased the burden on the generous (perhaps unsustainably generous) British welfare state. This has been accompanied by a growing disquiet among many British citizens that their culture, traditions, and sense of nationhood are being perilously eroded. Add to this the large numbers of non-European immigrants, especially from south Asia, the pockets of Islamic militants and perpetual terrorism concerns, the Syrian refugee crisis afflicting the continent, and especially the overall failure of many immigrant communities to integrate into British society (a failure with many culpable parties), and one can understand the concerns many Brits feel that their government has lost control — not only of the national borders, but of the national identity. When that implicit contract between the governing and governed is eroded, so too is the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens.
History looms large over the debate. Both the “Remain” and “Leave” sides invoke historical narratives and insights, and both have compelling reasons to do so. For the Remainers, the EU is “the most successful peace project in history,” and the creation of the EU has played a key role in neutering the hostilities and tensions that plunged Europe into repeated wars over the centuries, including the last century, which contained the two bloodiest wars in human history. For a nation whose every village, town, city, and college has multiple monuments listing the sons killed in the First and Second World Wars, the EU’s role in preserving the peace commands attention.
So it is somewhat of a paradox that the most enthusiastic support for the Remainers comes from the younger generation of Brits with no memory of those wars, whereas the older generation has a higher percentage of EU skeptics. This is where the other side of history comes in. Britain’s older generations recall that their nation fought those wars not to achieve continent-wide political and economic integration, but to preserve their nation’s security and liberty. Why, they ask, should their nation pay such high costs to defend its sovereignty in wartime only to surrender it to Brussels bureaucrats in peacetime?
Further illustrating the complexity of the historical debate is the fact that accomplished historians of a conservative bent are themselves split on the issue, with, for example, Andrew Roberts of Kings College London supporting the Leave camp and Brendan Simms of Cambridge supporting Remain.
How should Americans feel about the vote? Strictly in terms of U.S. national interests, it is preferable for Britain to remain in the EU. Many American policymakers have made this point, such as Senators Lindsey Graham and Jeanne Shaheen in yesterday’s Washington Post, and a bipartisan coalition of former secretaries of state and defense in an open letter last month. Part of America’s Special Relationship with the U.K. stems from our British ally’s influence in continental Europe, and such leverage would be vastly diminished by a Brexit. And a decision to leave would introduce further challenges and uncertainties. For example, credible voices such as former Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair warn that a Brexit could lead to the dissolution of the U.K. itself, with renewed push for Scottish independence and erosion of the Northern Ireland peace settlement.
On the other hand, there is something to be said for Americans showing due regard to our British cousins on the Leave side. As Leave proponents never tire of saying in response to American hectoring on behalf of Remain, “why would you expect us to submit our country to curtailed sovereignty and contrived rules that you Americans would never accept for your own nation?” If nothing else, this sentiment should remind us that Britain’s strength as an American ally stems from much more than just its GDP, multilateral institutional memberships, and political influence in Brussels, but rather from our shared values as self-governing and free peoples.
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