The Choice to Leave or to Remain: Reflections from London
June 22, 2016
As I walked out of a Tube station in London last week, a large poster greeted me with the words “Independence Day June 23.” How ironic—although this poster was advertising the sequel to the movie Independence Day—would June 23rd in fact be the date when the United Kingdom declared independence from the European Union?
A brief, three-day visit to London seemed like a microcosm of the referendum roller coaster ride. When my plane landed at Heathrow, the polls showed a shift towards Leave. My taxi driver pointed his finger at the Thames River to show me the ongoing Battle of the Thames, where a flotilla of Scottish fishermen traveled to Westminster to support the Leave campaign while another flotilla demonstrated their support for Remain. Insults were traded.
The following day, as I was about to participate in a panel discussion on the implications of the referendum, we learned of the tragic death of Jo Cox, a member of parliament. The campaigns fell silent as everyone absorbed the loss. As I departed London, the polling data suggested that the mood has shifted to Remain and international markets were buoyed. The campaigns have resumed, but seem more subdued and circumspect.
The idea to hold a referendum was launched three and a half years ago by David Cameron in his bid to be re-elected Prime Minister. In what could only be considered the greatest political gamble of our generation, few believed that such a referendum would take place—as Mr. Cameron never envisioned (nor did the polls or bookmakers) that his Conservative party would win an outright majority in parliament. But, the Conservatives did win and Mr. Cameron kept his word—now the British people will have their say on the UK’s future relationship with the EU on June 23rd. Throughout the campaign, Mr. Cameron has warned that economic devastation and even possibly conflict in Europe could ensue should a vote to Leave occur. Mr. Cameron’s warnings cause one to seriously question why an elected leader would place his country in such jeopardy by holding such a referendum in the first place.
Are you “In” or are you “Out”? The answer to such a straight-forward question should be simple but the polls—if they can be believed—suggest that the vote is too close to call with 44% support for staying, 44% for leaving and many still undecided.
This referendum is the battle between the rational economic mind and the emotional, democratic, and sovereign heart. The outcome of the battle will be determined solely by the motivation of the voter to vote. Referendums are not elections. Political parties are not mobilizing as they would in an election. British enthusiasm for Europe as an issue is low. If there is high voter turn-out, it is more likely that the vote will be to Remain. If turn-out seems low, particularly in locations that should be favorably to the Remain camp, there is a strong chance that the decision will be to leave. There is still a substantial percentage of the vote that probably will only decide on the way to the polling station.
There has already been significant collateral battle damage as both campaigns have stretched truth to the point of breaking. Experts and organizations have been aggressively challenged. Fear has also been a key weapon: you can either fear an economic disaster (even the end of Western civilization!) or fear endless EU immigration and reduced public services. Your choice.
What has been missing from the British debate is an honest conversation about the costs of being part of a single economic market. Despite a hard-won British rebate and many opt-outs, as well as protections from the costs of this integration, there is still a price to pay for being in an economic bloc to which the UK benefits—the UK sent 44% of its exports and received 53% of its imports of goods and services from the EU in 2015. The costs (and grudging benefits) of the single market are largely acknowledged—although not liked. And, should the UK decide to leave the EU, there will be costs of not being in the single market. These costs are unknown, but could be considerable. It has been irresponsible for both sides to suggest that there are no costs to this choice. In fact, the referendum has already had a material cost: the pound has experienced high volatility, falling to $1.38 after the referendum date was announced in February (down from $1.57 roughly six months prior), and it is estimated that as much as £38 billion has fled UK mutual funds over a twelve-month period.
Whatever the choice will be on June 23rd, one hopes that it is decisive—one way or the other. As David Cameron recently said, "We get involved, we take a lead, we get things done.” This is the UK we need and have missed for several years. If there is a vote to Remain, the UK must lead and help make the EU a more responsive and resilient organization. If there is a decision to Leave, the UK must lead to create a new and positive relationship with Europe which could be a model for those countries who will not become members of the EU but want a relationship. The organizational purgatory which has become the UK-EU relationship can no longer be sustained where London constantly seeks to protect itself from and slow down nearly every aspect of EU integration as Brussels seeks to outflank and isolate the UK. If there is a vote to Remain, the status quo cannot remain.
What will June 24th look like? Should there be a narrow decision to leave or remain, prepare for attempts by both camps to relitigate the outcome as the Conservative party commits fratricide and political uncertainty continues. Should there be a sizable (10% point) vote to Remain, Prime Minister Cameron will need to re-boot both his domestic and European agenda which have been completely absorbed by the referendum. He must decide whether to reconcile with the six cabinet ministers who have campaigned to Leave or to seek their resignations. For its part, the EU will finally be able to get on with much of the business that it has postponed for the past six months in order to not interfere with the referendum, further rattling euro-skeptic cages.
Should there be a vote to Leave, there is no official or expert who knows how it will unfold as no EU member state has ever chosen to leave (departure wasn’t even legally possible until 2009). There will be an initial major economic shock and peripheral Eurozone economies may see the price of their debt rise (which has implications for Spain which is re-running its parliamentary election three days after the UK referendum). There will be a strong negative reaction from other European capitals—particularly from France whose far-right National Front party is also advocating for an EU referendum following French presidential elections next year—as the EU would seek to announce new initiatives to more closely integrate to increase the legitimacy of the European project in the eyes of the remaining 27 members. Europe will need to choose between pragmatism toward or punishment of the British.
As we are riveted to our computers and televisions very late on June 23rd and in the early hours of June 24th, we know we are watching a new chapter of European history unfold. Thus far, this has been a success story which the United States has largely taken for granted. Sadly, the United States no longer sees the construction of modern Europe as an American project as much as it is a European effort. And this great project is slowly fragmenting … by democratic choice.
Heather Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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