With Barack Obama visiting London this Friday, one big question is what, if anything, he will say about Britain's June 23 referendum on whether to remain in the European Union or leave (dubbed “Brexit”).
The decision about whether the UK should become fully independent once again is critical for Britain, but also has enormous ramifications for the United States.
Americans generally still see the EU as an economic union. Until relatively recently, many still called it “the Common Market,” though Europeans themselves had long ago discarded that outmoded term. In economic theory, a continental free-trade zone is hard to argue against; indeed, its commercial appeal was what initially persuaded the UK and others to join. But the EU is not now, hasn’t been for years, and for many never was, intended to be “merely” a free-trade area.
Instead, from its inception, the EU (and predecessors like the European Coal and Steel Community) was always primarily about reconfiguring political power. EU acolytes believe that the very concept of the nation-state brought war and misery to Europe for centuries. Their answer was straightforward: Eliminate European nation-states, a goal embodied in the 1957 Treaty of Rome’s pledge of “ever closer union.” Although Brits generally understood this phrase as merely aspirational, it was gospel for the EU’s altar boys.
Brexit, therefore, highlights for America a central issue in the international sphere: “Who governs?” (As the title of Robert Dahl’s classic study asked.) Today, the United States stands on the slippery slope of “sovereignty sharing,” a concept central to what its EU devotees call “the European project.” At the turn of the millennium, the consensus in academia held that the global nature of so many problems (climate change, for example) meant it was only a matter of time before national sovereignty would be relegated to museums. Although this supranational euphoria has subsided somewhat, Britain’s referendum would constitute a true counterrevolution.
If Britain can walk back up the EU slippery slope, it would be an inspiration and a model for America in the wider world. Prime Minister David Cameron has tried to make remaining in the EU more attractive by squeezing concessions from other EU members. But though his promises were sweeping, his actual achievements were so slim as to be, in the words of former chancellor of the exchequer Nigel Lawson, “unbelievably insubstantial.” Even Cameron’s success exempting Britain from the EU goal of “ever closer union” is mere symbolism. The fact remains that EU decisions trump national law, the true test of where sovereignty resides. Increasingly, Parliament simply rubber-stamps rules already decided by EU bureaucrats and diplomats in Brussels, and innumerable EU regulations automatically take effect with no parliamentary oversight whatsoever. And unlike UK government-agency regulations, which Parliament can overturn by statute (as Congress could in the US context), it cannot unilaterally reverse EU-wide directives from Brussels.
Americans, therefore, should hardly be surprised so many Britons resent distant and unaccountable EU governance. On this side of the Atlantic, we readily understand that sovereignty resides constitutionally in “we, the people,” not in the federal government. At a time of dwindling confidence that we have control over our own government, the idea of sharing sovereignty internationally, thereby diluting it even further, is decidedly as unattractive here as in Britain.
The stakes are higher than mere passing politics. Critics of the EU’s bureaucratic decision-making describe its core problem as “the democratic deficit,” a phrase that would resonate in America today. But the EU true believers’ real fear is that Brexit would reveal just how illusory are the actual achievements of “ever closer union.” Invariably, whether in Holland earlier this month, in France, or in Ireland, referendums tend to go against “ever closer union,” thus repeatedly forcing EU elites to evade such expressions of popular sentiment. Pier Carlo Padoan, Italy’s minister of finance, said, for example, that Brexit would “show that one can ‘undo’ membership, which is dangerous.” This is a telling observation from a member of the elite; who let the peasants vote?
Britain’s debate is full of specious charges and countercharges, such as the argument that Brexit would endanger British and European security. This is false. Europe’s security rests with NATO, not the EU, and NATO has one thing the EU never will: the United States.
Nor will Britain simply be cast adrift if it leaves the EU. Economic common sense will persuade all concerned to mitigate the consequences of the split and maintain the benefits of free economic intercourse. If European states, upset with Brexit, try “beggar thy neighbor” policies in response, they will deserve what they get.
Simply asserting that there are potential costs and disruptions associated with leaving the EU ignores the greater costs — especially the risk to representative government — of remaining. Brexit, however, would drive a stake through the heart of “ever closer union,” the EU’s supposedly inexorable march forward. Americans should welcome Britain’s coming declaration of independence.