Editors’ Note: Those who advocate for a British exit from the European Union seem to think that they can turn back the clock on globalization. They can’t, writes Arturo Sarukhan, who outlines the problematic ripple effects that would likely come with Brexit. This posted is translated and adapted from an op-ed published in
The famous but also apocryphal newspaper headline that supposedly ran, “Fog in the channel; Continent cut off” is not only a central tenet of what “Britishness” is supposed to look like. It also reflects a sense of British insularity and perennial ambivalence about the ties that have bound the nation throughout history with the rest of Europe. But when Britons go to the polls on June 23 to decide whether to leave the European Union, the result could be that like in the case of the famous headline, it is Britain that actually becomes dangerously isolated.
The referendum, on what has become known as Brexit, presents a number of risks for the U.K., Europe, and the rest of the world. Polls released last week show that about 44 percent of voters are in favor of staying in the EU, and 42 percent are opposed. Most British voters are thinking predominantly about domestic issues, and the impact that broader European policies—such as on migration, the euro, and market regulations—have on their own well-being.
But it’s not just the U.K. that’s channeling euro-skepticism. In a Pew survey conducted in 10 EU countries, a median of 51 percent of respondents had a favorable view of the EU. In the latest Eurobarometer survey, which covered all 28 EU member states, 45 percent of respondents said they think that the EU is going in the wrong direction, compared with only 23 percent who think the opposite. Unfortunately, the “remain” campaign in the U.K. hasn’t been very effective. Its advocates have tended to focus on the transactional nature of the decision and on what’s at stake (e.g. how Brexit would affect exports or housing prices), rather than on the compelling story, vision, and narrative of an internationalist, open, cosmopolitan Britain. It’s therefore not surprising that Britons are almost split down the middle on whether or not to stay within the EU fold.
The vote comes at a time of worldwide uncertainty, with the global economy at a potential inflection point and dangerous, populist demagogues gaining traction and strength in the United States and across Europe. These political figures are challenging the very nature of alliances and the value of immigration, as well as the fundamental notion that it behooves us all to live in an international rules-based system. Brexit would be like manna from heaven for an isolationist and nationalist like presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations would be on the ropes without London’s participation, for one. And after spending 43 years in the EU, the U.K. would need to renegotiate its financial, economic, commercial, and social accords with the rest of Europe—as well as countries with which the EU has free trade agreements. And although the U.K. participates in the so-called group of Five Eyes (the five English-speaking countries that cooperate closely on intelligence), Brexit would affect its role in transatlantic security cooperation and combating terrorism. Moreover, it is expected that a vote for Brexit would likely set off another pro-independence, pro-European wave in Scotland, thus fragmenting the kingdom further and continuing to exacerbate EU vulnerability. The dark forces of history—European nationalism, fragmentation, demagoguery, and xenophobia—could simply skyrocket. Needless to say, the decision on Brexit will have profound implications for British foreign policy and its role in the international arena: punching above its weight will no longer be tenable.
John Donne memorably wrote in the 17th century that “no man is an island.” Isolationism is not an option in the 21st century either; no country can shield itself from the effects of the global interconnectedness, whether climate change, transnational organized crime, cyber threats, or movements of migrants and refugees. Those who claim they can turn back the clock to some golden age do not understand the nature of globalization today, nor the serious economic and geopolitical consequences that come with trying to roll it back. As a Mexican who grew up and attended school in Wales as a young boy, I ask the British to resist the siren calls of those who propose—impossibly—to return to a past of “splendid isolation.”