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Brexit will hurt the UK, EU, and US for years to come

William A. Galston

The vote by the people of the UK to leave the European Union ensures years of turmoil and uncertainty as Britain and the EU negotiate the terms of separation and as the pieces of the UK struggle with the consequences.  Scotland may well seek to remain in the EU by voting for independence from the UK. 

In the short to medium term, this is bad news for both Britain and Europe.  And it is bad news for the United States as well.

First, and most obviously, it is bad for our economy.  The instability the vote creates will be bad for global investment and global growth, which was already slowing significantly.  Slower global growth means weaker demand for commodities and especially energy, impeding the recovery of the US energy industry from the collapse in oil prices.  Moreover, the inevitable rise in the value of the dollar will depress US exports and deal a further blow to our manufacturing sector.

Second, it is bad for our diplomacy.  We have worked with closely with the EU on a range of important international endeavors, all the more so since a rearmed Russia began throwing its military weight around in Georgia and Ukraine.  But the EU must now turn its attention more to its internal affairs—not just the UK’s exit, but also a reconsideration of its stated goal of deepening the political integration among its member-states.  There is a widening gulf between the aspiration of pan-European elites and the sentiments of the peoples of European nations, and the vote in the UK means that a response to the lack of public support for further integration can no longer be postponed.

Despite Winston Churchill’s famous quip that the United States and Great Britain are two nations divided by a common language, we do continue to have a special relationship based on a shared outlook in many areas.  Britain’s membership in the EU has amplified the voice of the United States in the intra-European economic and security dialogue, and Britain’s withdrawal is bound to diminish our influence.

And finally, it is bad for our politics—unless you think that Donald Trump is good for our politics.  Watching the UK election returns last night, I was struck by the extraordinary parallels between the demographic underpinnings of that contest and our presidential election.  The British vote—especially in England—pitted young against old, educated professionals against lower-skilled workers, cities against small towns and rural areas, those who welcome immigration and diversity against those who fear it.  There as here, economic decline and rapid demographic change have combined to produce a surge in ethno-nationalist sentiment.

Speaking from Scotland this morning, Mr. Trump hailed the Brexit vote and urged his own country to follow suit.  While he is there, he may want to talk with the Scots, more than 60 percent of whom voted to remain in the EU and who may well pursue this objective by severing their ties with the United Kingdom.  

The politics of division will not benefit either the UK or the EU, and it is hard to see how it will benefit the United States either.  At the same time, it is further warning—if such were needed—that the winners from economic and demographic globalization can no longer ignore the entirely justified complaints of those whom it has left behind.  As the “Remain” campaign has learned to its sorrow, citing aggregate economic statistics cuts no ice with people who have lost all confidence in the experts who produce those statistics and the elites who promulgate them as Holy Writ.

The liberal internationalist project of economic and political integration has hit a wall, and politicians in the United States who are broadly sympathetic to this project must adjust.  The alternative is that over time, the domestic voices who sympathize with the sentiments of UK’s “Leave” campaign will carry the day.

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