In September of 1988, Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of Great Britain, spoke at the European University in Bruges on the role of Britain in the European Community (now the European Union). The Bruges Speech, one of the most famous speeches in modern European politics, outlined a vision of independent European states cooperating on common European policies, but retaining the identity and flexibility on core issues. Thatcher attempted to clear the air on British entry into the Single European Act by saying Britain shares both common destiny with Europe, and its partners around the world, particularly the United States, shedding the air of exclusivity in the Community. Twenty years later, despite a new deal for greater exemptions from EU treaties, Tory Prime Minister David Cameron, announced that the British Referendum on leaving the European Union will be held on June 23, potentially ending a long era of British engagement with the continent. The challenge of the British Exit, or Brexit, is a serious reversal of British policy affecting not just Europe, but the Atlantic Community too. The political shockwave of the referendum vote, much like that of Scotland’s near choice to end the 400 year union, demonstrates the British weakness and insecurity regarding its place in Europe and the globe, long after the Pax Britannica’s fiery end at Suez in 1956. As Europe and the United States endures attacks by the extreme right and pressures from international conflicts in Syria and Libya, the Brexit vote is an alarming international event that confirms the stagnation and decline of the Atlantic Community as a economic and political force int he new century.
The Foundation of Atlantic Unity
European unity has been held together by a trifecta of traditionally antagonistic powers, Great Britain, France and Germany, whose economic, political and social interdependence have been integral to the success of the European experiment. When World War II ended and the US launched the Marshall Aid program to rebuild western Europe, Washington encouraged it devastated European allies to seek greater cooperation on economic development, ultimately to discredit European communists in the 1940s. United by the polarizing effects of the Cold War and by the necessity of economic interdependence, Winston Churchill, calling for a “United States of Europe,” foreshadowed the emergence of the Coal and Steel Community, the Common Market, and the European Union, the most pioneering project in intergovernmental cooperation in modern statecraft. European unity has never been a conscious effort to build a federal state as Churchill and other integrationists have advocated. Treaties were born out of the crises or challenges presented, both inside and outside of the continent, like the push for stronger fiscal controls in the fallout of the sovereign debt crisis.
The United Kingdom ended its long history of being a continental balancer to the great powers of continental Europe and adopted the SEA under Thatcher. Yet, as process of integration continued in the 1980s, Thatcher’s case in the Bruges’ Speech argued Britain should pursue (along with others in the Union) increased market liberalization and expansion of free market policies as opposed to more stringent social welfare policies advanced by France and Germany. Though Thatcher’s successors have been more receptive to strengthening the EU, the tone has been to advocate decentralized and independent economic policies for its members, including Britain. In describing British policies towards the EU, the arrangement of shared power under Thatcher transformed old British realpolitik into economic and political tools, rather than military ones. The potential exit of the British from this arrangement breaks the shared balance of power that has held the EU in place,and remove itself entirely from its new balancing role in the Atlantic Community’s struggling, but still strong economic bloc.
The First of Many Divorces
Should Brexit result in a British departure, the UK will be the first country ever to leave the EU. The precedent was nearly set by Greece, an economically troubled member of the bloc whose near departure set panic among European leaders, calmed only by German and French guarantees of stability. Britain’s stepping to the sidelines and leaving the arrangement altogether would be a major blow to the Union’s credibility, empowering eurosceptic parties in power in Greece and other border states to push for their own departure. Worse, states like Hungary, Poland, and the Scandinavian states might seek their own special arrangements with the EU, disregarding common rules and procedures needed to coordinate and enforce cooperation on common policy areas. The strength of the EU has always been the respect the strength of its treaties that implement international law as domestic law. The political shift that would take place would fundamentally reduce the bloc’s collective power, especially on economic policy concerning immigration, fiscal controls, and social security programs.
The panic of British departure will spread to regions across the continent who want more say in European policies. Scottish independence, an event made ever more likely by a vote for “Yes,” would embolden the Catalonians and other regional parties to challenge their mother countries for the same arrangement. Regionalism has been a rising trend in Europe since the 1990s, as large cities and industrious regions like Northern Italy and Catalonia want a larger voice in Brussels. This trend, Regionalism 2.0, given a shock by Brexit, will shake Europe and potentially strengthen the populist and extreme right-wing parties like the French National Front going into elections next year. While such a scenario is hardly measurable (the most comparable event is the Soviet Breakup) the damage to the Atlantic economic bloc will be nearly irreversible.
A vote for “Yes” would also mean an economic and financial separation from the rest of Europe temporarily, and financial turbulence for parties on both sides of the Atlantic. Forced to pursue an independent, isolated economic policy towards both Europe and the United States, the British would have to reinvent trade relations with its neighbors from a position of weakness. For the US alone, the prospect of the British departure has already caused markets to panic, and that weariness with effect investor choices to invest in an uncertain environment. If the worst case scenario of Scotland leaving to preserve its chances of EU membership, the UK’s breakup will lead to economic decline, rupturing decades of carefully crafted trade agreements with the US’ 5th largest trade partner worldwide. As regulatory regimes change and uncertainty rises as to whether Britain can successfully negotiate preferential treatment outside of the EU, a challenge whose outcome is very uncertain. Martin Schulze, when asked about the referendum, claimed Britain’s was isolating itself from its closest geographical and economic allies.
London’s Little Trump Leads On
As policymakers are focused on impending disasters in the Middle East with little thought to the silent tragedy unfolding across the Atlantic, right right figures in national elections across the Atlantic world continue withering attacks on the political establishment. Britain is no different, and probably the hardest hit outside of the United States, as demagogic figures feed off a general atmosphere of fear caused by terrorism the refugee crisis. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, is the most recent voice calling for Brexit as he rallies the eurosceptics in Cameron’s party to fight him on issues like immigration controls. The Economist, while not calling Johnson by name, described the emergence of such anti-establishment leaders as “Little Trumps,” looking for a victory to justify their rejection of moderate, reform-minded leaders. For all intentions, the eurosceptic challenge is the rejection of Thatcher’s vision of an independently engaged Britain in both European and global affairs. The Eurosceptics like Johnson who have taken control of the Conservative Party, and are intent to go beyond Thatcher to unlatch themselves at the expense of the greater region and its allies.
The popular sentiments of figures like Johnson are rupturing British politics in a way not seen since the early 1980s, encouraging a new wave of isolationism and fear that is antipathetic to the core principles behind the Atlantic Community. To this day, the economic strength, common security policy, and open cooperation of the Atlantic bloc through the EU and NATO has created one of the most stabilizing power blocs over the second half of the 20th century. Not only should US engagement in the Atlantic Community be part of the core issues under debate by US candidates and policymakers, but an event that we actively prepare for as a matter of practical policy. The foreign policy establishment must take a new look at its longtime ally, and weigh in on the debate that will resonate across beyond the shores of the “pond” to emerging economies in the Global South and the Far East.