On June 23rd, British voters go the polls to vote on a referendum whether they should remain in the European Union, or whether they should withdraw. This is in response to growing sentiment in Britain that has been under the surface for a generation now. Prime Minister David Cameron has staked his political career on the outcome arguing that they should stay in the EU. His administration has been releasing reports with minute details on the effect of leaving the EU and what it would mean to the British economy. The bottom line: nobody really knows for sure.
The rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) along with the Tories are spurring on the debate to leave the EU. When Cameron was reelected Prime Minister, his Conservative Party ran on a platform that sort of supported leaving the EU, but with provisions. The first was that Cameron would try to renegotiate their relationship with the EU and then submit the question to voters in a referendum. To his credit, he did receive some concessions from Brussels, Belgium, but his detractors say it did not go far enough. Because it was not what many thought they could get, it has only fueled the fires to leave the EU.
This is not wholly an economic argument. Immigration plays a very large role in the debate. Like most other European countries, Britain is seeing a huge influx of Muslim immigrants. They also have a very large and growing Middle Asian and Indian population- people who entered the country on work visas. Probably the biggest area of concern is the Schengen agreement. That allows workers in one EU country to legally cross into another country without a visa for work or travel. It is akin to crossing state lines here in the US, except in Europe we are talking about international boundaries (or even bodies of water). Given the high profile ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels and previous attacks in Spain and London, there is the added problem of security and counter-terrorism.
Already, France is warning that the La Tourquet agreement which allows British and French officials to operate on each other’s territory in processing refugees would be null and void. As such, they note that the large refugee camp in Calais would be released and the refugees allowed to enter Britain via Dover. In fact, if Britain does withdraw from the EU, their entire relationship with the remaining members of the EU would have to be renegotiated. That has some British worried.
Almost immediately, the EU would lose 15% of their GDP. Britain’s largest trading partners are members of the European Community. Although committed to free trade, those relationships would have to be renegotiated and the terms may not be as favorable to Britain compared to what they are currently. Britain also fears that the EU would retaliate, especially in the area of financial services. Some argue that London has replaced Wall Street as the world’s banking center. That was one area where Cameron sought to exact concessions from the EU. To many, although there were concessions, they weren’t enough.
There are countries in Europe that are not members of the EU, so Britain would have a template for a new European order. For example, Norway negotiated significant access to the EU market except for farm and fish products. Its exports are subject to EU customs standards. They pay a fee to the EU. And although they are not a party to the Schengen agreement, they abide by it with reciprocity, although they have brakes on the movement of people into Norway (which they have never applied). Switzerland has negotiated over 100 free trade agreements with financial services being out of bounds. With immigration, Brussels has threatened that if Switzerland clamps down, then these agreements may be in jeopardy.
Further, there are countries which would like to join the EU. However, the earlier enthusiasm in the former Soviet bloc countries has cooled down somewhat. One fear and one that is being expressed by some leaders is that should Britain decide to withdraw, it may start a domino effect. The Czech Republic would possibly be the first to make any movement in that area. Some officials in Holland have said that they will push for a referendum should Britain leave the EU. There is even talk in France (whose brainchild was the EU) of leaving.
Thus, Britain’s departure may lead to further defections. And it would have repercussions across the Atlantic. For decades now, western Europe fell under the protective military umbrella of NATO backed mainly by the United States. Unfortunately, NATO’s success caused many European countries to decrease their defense spending while increasing spending on social welfare. As long as NATO was doing the defending (actually the US), the philosophy of Bernie Sanders and other socialists was alive and well and thriving in Europe as welfare states arose that took care of citizens from cradle to grave.
A side effect of this rise of socialism in Europe was an antipathy towards their defenders- the US- if not outright animosity at times. Other than Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, their view of resolving or meeting the threats to Europe- mainly Islamic terrorism- do not square with US priorities. After 9/11, the Bush administration negotiated very tough agreements to place an ABM system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Their leaders expended much political capital doing so against a rising chorus of Leftists in those countries. That is the deal that Obama scrapped soon after being elected. Yet today, the threat of missile attacks from Iran are greater than they were after 9/11. Sure, they may not have a nuclear warhead, but they would be no less dangerous.
That is why many of the supporters of leaving the EU in Britain note that doing so will increase security for Great Britain in two ways. First, they would not have to acquiesce to EU demands and policy in the area of national defense. This would likely bring US-British security relationships even closer than anything they could achieve while in the EU. Second, they would not have to adhere to EU guidelines, mandates and quotas over immigration or refugees. That is, they- not the EU- would be responsible for their borders.
To be sure, many European countries fear a British revolt. Leaders in Kosovo have expressed concerns. About 40% of Ireland’s exports go to Great Britain. Additionally, the agreements over border control between Ulster and Ireland would likely change. There are rumblings in Scotland that if Britain leaves the EU, they will reopen cessation talk. The EU agreed to help Wales financially, but with Britain out of the EU, that would go by the wayside and there is talk in Wales of seceding from the United Kingdom.
Make no mistake, the European Union is somewhat anti-American for a number of reasons- Middle East policy and support for Israel, Guantanamo, defense policy, climate change, green energy, etc. Yet, Obama disfavors Britain leaving the EU for two reasons. They are in the process of negotiating a free trade agreement with the EU and with Britain out, it would complicate matters very much. Obama has warned Britain that it would lose influence. His chief trade negotiator told his British counterparts that the US is not interested in making trade agreements with individual countries and intimated British goods could be subject to hefty tariffs. But the second and real reason is Obama’s worldview that matches up more with the socialism of the European continent. He views it as a model for the United States, as does Hillary Clinton. As for Sanders, his America would be Europe on steroids.
But there are two serious flaws in Obama’s thinking. First, the biggest international threat right now is not completion of a free trade agreement with Europe. It is Islamic terrorism. Many British intelligence officials support Britain leaving the EU arguing that other countries are not serious about confronting the very real threats now played out three times in less than two years. We have already seen the results of a lack of intelligence sharing between Holland, Belgium, France and Turkey.
Second, because of history, ties to America run deeper than British ties to continental Europe. For this reason, both sides in the British EU debate realize that Obama’s sentiments and statements will have little impact on the outcome. Both sides rightfully view Barack Obama as a weakened lame duck President. Cameron may welcome Obama’s sentiments, but it is likely to have a backlash and cries of Yankee interference.