Why you should care
Everyone in the U.K. has an opinion, but what parliament decides this week could impact European relations for decades.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
Spending several days in London last week afforded me a close look at the debate over Brexit — the decision made by voters in a 2016 referendum to end the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union (EU). What quickly became obvious is how Brexit is as divisive an issue as anything in American politics, that Brits are sick of it and that no one has an exit plan with widespread support. Parliament votes tomorrow on Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan, and I am convinced that what Britain decides will affect political dynamics not just in London but on the European continent as well.
I spoke with just about every Brit I encountered — drivers, waiters, clerks, business owners, an art dealer — an unscientific sample that nonetheless conveyed a sense of at least the “street view.” Younger people generally wanted to stay in the EU, while others were divided. Memorable phrases stood out, like “…we voted to go, so go,” “…reverse course, I want to travel and work in Europe” and “I truly want to stay but hate the debate and am ready to bail” or “…we’ve been through turmoil before; we’ll survive.” Most extreme were sentiments like, “if they redo the vote, there’ll be civil war” and, from those tired of the debate, “just pull the plug!”
If London goes through with Brexit, it will likely add to strains already evident in Europe.
The issue is so complex and the politics so fluid that it’s impossible to list all the options, but here are the main ones right now:
- PM May’s plan: Bets are on it failing in parliament tomorrow. It is the result of May’s agonized bargaining with the EU over many months, and most Brits characterize it as not really leaving and not really staying — because it would keep much of the British economy wired to the EU but, as a non-member, leave it little say over the rules Britain would have to follow. Folks refer to it as BRINO, Brexit in name only, and May appears to hope that if it’s rejected it will be resurrected later when alternatives prove even less popular.
- A second referendum: I once argued, including on OZY, that this was the only way out (because the 2016 campaign featured many false claims now exposed). Talking to Brits, I’ve come to agree it’s a bad idea. As May argues, when would you stop? If the public approved remaining, would there be calls for a third vote to break the tie? Still, consensus may form for a second vote.
- Brexit with no EU transition agreement. This is a kind of leap into the dark, favored by those most committed to leaving the EU. Others fear that chaos would reign — food shortages, long lines at borders, etc. — as normal commerce ground to a halt owing to a lack of agreements between major trading partners. Hard Brexiteers say Britain would get through it and ultimately benefit by getting out from under complex continental regulatory rules.
- There are many other variations, including the Norway model, which entails free trade with EU members but no say over most EU rules, or a political crack-up that leads to a new election fought primarily over EU membership.
In some ways, the debate over Brexit mirrors one taking place in the United States. At its core is divided opinion over whether the country benefits more from deep engagement with other countries — even with some sacrifice of independence and more exposure to phenomena like immigration — or whether interests are better served by more degrees of separation, if not total independence. As an American who’s dealt a lot with Britain, I’m biased toward the view that America benefits from a Britain deeply engaged in Europe. Obliviously, it’s not our call, but I do believe that Britain’s decision will strongly affect Europe as a whole.
The “big three” countries in the 28-member EU have been Germany, France and Britain. While Britain never adopted the Euro currency used by other members and has always had a degree of ambivalence about the Union, its role as a financial center, overall economic weight and close relations with the U.S. have given it outsize influence. And its presence also added a degree of balance in a constellation of powers that otherwise might have been dominated by Germany.
If London goes through with Brexit, it will likely add to strains already evident in Europe. While France and Germany have been the Union’s continental anchors, France is in trouble economically, and President Macron, despite his soaring ambition for European leadership, is politically weak. Southern members are all fragile economically, and founding member Italy, under populist rule, is challenging long-established practices in the Union. Eastern members Poland and Hungary are straining against some of the Union’s democratic benchmarks. Germany, meanwhile, faces a leadership change after 12 years of stable rule by Chancellor Angela Merkel, for most of that time Europe’s most powerful politician.
With Britain out, Germany — even in transition — would be the powerhouse in Europe. To a degree, it always has been, but never so nakedly as would be the case with a weakened France, wobbly members elsewhere, and an absent Britain. Europe has not had to deal with that particular configuration of power since the late 1950s. For the first time in the decades that I have followed the evolution of Europe’s unification movement, I think there is real cause for concern about the health of what visionaries have always called the “European Project.”
To be sure, there is much to criticize in the EU, and the European unification movement has always had its share of skeptics and opponents. But the bottom line is this: There is nothing in the continent’s prior history to reassure us about the fate of a Europe moving in the opposite direction.