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Will Britain leave the EU?

errata carmona for the boston globe

Little more than a year has passed since my native Scotland held its referendum on independence and Britain came within a hair’s breadth of breaking up. As someone who played a prominent role in the campaign to keep our country together, I know just how close the nationalists came to defeating us.

Now Britain faces another referendum, not about Scotland leaving the UK, but about the UK leaving Europe. No one should be in any doubt that the risk of Britain withdrawing from the EU when this vote is held in the next couple of years is real — and growing.

The referendum in Scotland last year became defined less by evidence and statistics than by emotion and identity; it was about nationalism, not rationalism. The coming referendum on Europe is going the same way, with the risk that this time the decision will be to pull apart rather than pull together.

A so-called Brexit would lead to a loss of prosperity and influence for the UK. It would leave Europe poorer, splitting the world's largest single market from its fifth biggest economy, and smaller, with a diminished role on the global stage. It would deprive the United States of its closest ally in the EU. And it would almost certainly be the trigger for another referendum on Scottish separation.

Most Americans I meet tend to be as baffled by the idea of the UK leaving Europe as British people generally are by US attitudes on gun control and the Second Amendment. "Why," you ask with a shake of the head, "would Britain want to do that?"

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The best explanation I can offer is that my country is experiencing the same kind of outsider, antiestablishment populism that is doing so much to shape your presidential primaries through the candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump,

In Britain's general election in May, we saw the Nationalists triumph in Scotland. Then we saw Jeremy Corbyn elected leader of the Opposition Labour Party to the astonishment of everyone — including himself. The global financial crisis trashed the British public's confidence in the powerful — bankers, regulators, corporate leaders, and politicians. And that distrust of elites, combined with deep grievances over immigration and national sovereignty, could further energize the campaign to take Britain out of Europe.

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Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron believes he can negotiate a new and better deal for Britain to remain inside EU before the referendum. But I don't share his confidence that other EU leaders will be willing to undertake a fundamental redesign at a time when they are trying to deal with simultaneous continental-wide security, refugee, and Eurozone crises.

The campaign to stay in Europe will argue that the EU offers Britain peace, prosperity, and power. Russia's recent incursions into Ukraine should only serve to emphasize the EU's achievement of ending conflict within its borders.

It is a postimperial delusion to imagine Britain outside Europe as some kind of North Atlantic Singapore: More than half of Britain's trade is with the EU, and millions of jobs depend on that access. And similarly, the generational story is not the dilution of British sovereignty by Brussels, but the rise of Beijing. China's population is 20 times that of Britain's, and regional groups are coming together in the realization of the economic benefits of our interdependence.

Yet a rational, calm articulation of these facts by a political and business elite is likely to be insufficient to win the coming referendum.

The lesson of the Scottish referendum is that evidence-based arguments need to be supplemented with emotional connection and a positive account of our future. Whether those lessons have been learned will emerge in the coming months.

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British people may yet shrug their shoulders and simultaneously think the EU is rather irritating but on balance we are better in. If they don't, the coming referendum could leave Britain out of Europe and Scotland out of Britain. That would be a big deal . . . on both sides of the Atlantic.


Douglas Alexander is a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a former British minister for Europe.