Brexit: Why the Brits Will Stay... Or Go


On June 23, Britain votes on whether to remain in the European Union or to leave it. Either way, the point has been made and registered around the European continent that the British have more faith in the white rabbits of political fairy tales than they do in the sinkhole of Brussels and its economic policies.

Even though the vote is mostly a creature of English party politics — Prime Minister David Cameron chose to have a showdown with the noisome “Eurosceptics” who make up half of his fox-hunting party — the negative consequences of the vote both for Europe and for Great Britain will exceed any advantages that he wrings from the party’s recalcitrant right wing.

Punters, who in Britain predict outcomes more successfully than pundits do, have been giving a slight advantage at the polls to the so-called Leavers. But the senseless killing by a Neo-Nazi of the well-liked Labour Minister of Parliament Jo Cox, who was campaigning in Yorkshire for Britain to stay in Europe, casts a pall on the Leave position. With more than thirteen percent of the electorate undecided and unlikely to make up their minds before they vote, the referendum on Britain and Europe could still tilt in favor of the Union.

Who wants Britain out of Europe? The main constituencies for leaving the EU are working class Labourites tired of losing their jobs to Slovenian immigrants, and right-wing nativists. Leave supporters include UKIP, the British Independence Party, which sees all good things British (David Beckham’s right foot. . . David Beckham’s left foot. . .) going up in the smoke of endless regulations from Brussels, or being overrun by a long line of immigrants who have 'clogged up' local social services.

That the French city of Calais has become a Syrian refugee waiting room for those on their way to England is another reason some Britons would like to retreat to their “island fortress.” “We want our country back” is the typical refrain of Leavers.

In economic terms, Britain sends the EU about $20 billion a year, and gets back (directly) about $7 billion. Thus the English contribute about $13 billion to the Union, which, depending on how you look at it, buys them either continent-wide peace and prosperity, or welfare payments to Greek civil servants retiring at age 52.

But it would be naïve to assume that Britain gets nothing more from the European Union than some milk subsidies. For starters, even though the country kept the British pound instead of adapting the Euro, the financial center of Europe remains in London. Banks, brokerage firms, and other financial intermediaries trade more Euro-based investments in the city than in any other EU capital.

Compared to London, Paris, where they still take long lunches, has the feel of a prosperous regional market, and Frankfurt has the air of twentieth century Cincinnati, a well-to-do merchant city on a river.

As EU members, British companies — to a degree that is difficult to quantify — also enjoy a huge competitive advantage for their sales into Europe.

Nevertheless, some British workers only see the negative influence of the EU on their job security and paychecks. Large ships are now more likely to be built in Gdansk than Glasgow, much the way Airbuses are pieced together around the continent rather than in United Kingdom hangars. Officially, Labour is opposing Brexit, but that party itself is fractured on the question.

In voting to leave the European Union, the skeptics believe that Britain can maintain its positive trade relations with Europe and its global financial position, while still booting out Bulgarian émigrés living on the English dole. They also believe they would save $13 billion in subsidies to Italian vintners (et al.) who knock off for lunch not long after the their third morning coffee.

But how forgiving would Europe be with bilateralism if it were trashed by Brexit isolationists?

Politically, the historical arguments are lost on the iPhone generation. For them, the European militarism that has been a fixture since the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century (if not before), and the Franco-Prussian wars of the nineteenth and twentieth century, are as distant as formal tea service on the job at 4 PM.

If Britain does decide to exit the common market, chances are good that a Doomsday scenario in Europe could unfold as follows:

—With Britain out of the European Union, the Scottish Nationalist Party — the most dominant party in Scotland — would likely call for another referendum on Scottish independence, which this time would pass, just before Scotland applied for membership in the EU.

—Britain’s exit from the EU would also strengthen the far right in France’s next presidential election in spring 2017, as the French would see themselves as the only counterweight in Europe to German dominance, which is never a good idea.

—Brexit would also be a huge victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is no fan of David Cameron, Barack Obama, or NATO policies that have pushed the borders of the European community into the Baltic States and close to Ukraine.

—Putin would be likely to view Britain’s exit from the community as clear evidence that the United States has little influence in Europe. He could use the moment to menace Latvia, Georgia, Ukraine or Moldova.

—Finally, Brexit could hasten debt default not just in Greece, but in other Mediterranean countries that for the moment enjoy the full faith and credit of all major European countries. If the backstop is reduced to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, the chances are good that her government would fall to parties on the right, and her successor would probably be less keen on having Berlin backstop all the questionable loans in southern Europe.

If you want to criticize the EU, do so because it did not spend much time, if any, on the question of dissolution when drafting the articles of incorporation. That's made it easy for one country, in this case Britain, to have a simple yes or no vote on membership, almost sixty years into the experiment on common economic polices.

In retrospect, the EU could have demanded a two-thirds voting majority or a confirmation vote in the European parliament. Or it could have mandated that the exit period take place over ten years or so.

Instead, on June 23rd, Britain votes on the future of Europe, and those holding the keys are, among others, unemployed fisherman on the North Sea coast, where EU membership is a license for Dutch or German trawlers to fish in the local waters.

Ironically, among those most supportive of the EU are London millennials, for whom Europe remains “cool.” The problem with this bloc of voters, according to press reports, is that few of them know when the vote will be held or have registered to cast a ballot (“…whatever. . .”).

In many respects, Leavers are the spiritual heirs of appeasement, the belief by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and others that there was no reason for England to become entangled in European affairs. As he put it when Hitler wanted the Czechoslovak Sudetenland in 1938: “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

In response, Winston Churchill (never to be confused with the Leavers) scoffed that the British ruling class liked “…to take its weekends in the country while Hitler takes his countries in the weekends.” Alas, Brexit is this generation’s Munich, and with Europe in the midst of the wettest spring in 100 years, there are umbrellas in the air.

Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author, most recently, of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays, and Whistle-Stopping America. His next book, Reading the Rails, will be published in 2016. He lives in Switzerland.

Flickr photo by Paul Loyd: Brexit