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The Future of the European Union: A Brexit wrecks it?

Some thoughts on the impact of a Brexit victory for the future of the European Union.

The UK referendum on whether Great Britain stays in the European Union (EU) would be an exacting test for the Union under any strategic circumstances. Coming as it does at a time when EU members are engaged in a number of regional wars, overwhelmed by refugee flows, and only gingerly recovering from a colossal financial crisis, Brexit could be the straw that breaks the Union’s back.

Great Britain’s relationship with the European continent has always been difficult. Churchill, more than a decade before the first Euro-Union project saw the light of day, called for a United States of Europe even as he was widely thought not to have favoured Britain taking its place in it. (See the article by Edward Heath in The Independent in 1996 that sets the record straight on this score.)

In the 1960s, as the prospect of UK membership began to move from the theoretical to the practical, then French President De Gaulle warned that the Islanders would never be able to show the kind of solidarity with the European project that its founding members – France, Germany, Italy and the three Benelux states – had sought in its creation. On two occasions, in 1963 and 1967, De Gaulle vetoed UK accession, when all the other then members were in favour.

Was the grand old man of post-war French politics right? Yes and no. Great Britain is truly different from its fellow EU members. It is an island state that has systematically tried to stay out of Europe’s internecine wars, unless of course the continent threatened to engender a great power that could challenge the UK itself. Then too, the UK has presided over one of the world’s most effective empires, since 1949 a commonwealth of now 54 nations, whose sovereign is the head of one of the world’s most successful political dynasties. No other EU member can lay claim to anything close to such a historical heritage. But these characteristics have at the same time encouraged the UK to seek less integration than most continental members have. London is happy to go steady but doesn’t want to tie the knot.

But as different as it may be, the UK involvement in the EU project has been essential for its success in a number of respects.

The UK has brought balance to an EU dominated by the French-German tandem. Without the UK, the always problematical French-German relationship would have been much more problematical.

The UK has championed EU expansion to post-communist Europe, overcoming the reluctance of other members. This has been one of the EU’s most important accomplishments.

The UK has also leveraged its special relationship with the US – sometimes effectively, sometimes much less so. By and large, however, it has helped keep the EU-US relationship intact and functional.

As for the advantages accruing to the UK from its EU membership, they are significant and they are several. The UK has profited enormously from the inflow of people from the newer EU members, notwithstanding the anti-immigrant hysteria gripping the LEAVE camp. The immigrants that have flocked to Britain over the past twenty years or so have proven to be of a major advantage for the British economy, creating more wealth for the country than they have cost in social services and enriching its cultural life and society. The recent election of a Muslim of Pakistani origin as the mayor of London is but one case in point, and a potentially history-shaping one at that.

Then there is the question of London’s role as one of the most important financial centres in the world. This is due to its Englishness, its Atlanticism, its location, and its soundly entrenched respect for the rule of law. But it is not at all clear that these advantages would still hold sway if there were a Brexit. The recent downward performance of the pound on financial markets and indeed markets in general speaks legends.

Perhaps the most important issue raised by a possible UK departure from the EU concerns security. Of course, NATO remains the key security organisation defending the western democracies. But NATO can only work if the EU democracies contribute effectively to the defence of all of NATO’s members. If the UK were to leave the EU, this would send the signal that the UK was dissociating itself from the European security project, however imperfect it may be – and it is seriously imperfect. You can be sure that Russian President Vladimir Putin who has been mum through the REMAIN/LEAVE debate is watching this process carefully.

In a way, I understand the concerns of the LEAVE camp. The EU is not in good shape. Just take the security file. The EU proved incapable of devising a development policy that could have cushioned the tumultuous forces that were unleashed with the Arab Spring. It proved incapable of organising a safe haven for the anti-Assad forces in Syria when the US, heavy of unnecessary and unsuccessful wars, balked. It proved incapable of protecting its frontiers and sharing responsibility for receiving the hundreds of thousands of refugees that have come its way – precisely because of the earlier failures.

But all that said, the LEAVERS will find their country even less capable of dealing with this kind of challenge if it finds itself dealing with this kind of challenge alone. And there is also a serious risk that a BREXIT would also strengthen separatist sentiment in Scotland, Northern Ireland and even Wales.

A Brexit will not necessarily lead to a collapse of the EU but it well could. The EU has often been likened to a bicycle that has to keep peddling forward, if it is not to fall over. The EU finds itself at just such a moment.

(Image courtesy of Chris Ratcliffee/AFP.)

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