The Brexit Vote: Should Britain Leave the EU?

History professor Christopher Clark discusses Britain's relationship with the EU in light of this week's referendum.

Conceptual illustration depicting Great Britain and its relationship with the European Union. (iStock Image)

History professor Christopher Clark discusses Britain's relationship with the EU in light of this week's referendum. (iStock Image)

Should the United Kingdom leave or remain in the European Union, the multi-national economic and political union, based in Brussels, to which it has belonged for 43 years? That’s the question the British public will decide in a referendum on June 23.

The move to integrate began after World War II, with the notion that if European countries traded freely with each other the threat of wars would recede as their economic markets became intertwined. Britain joined the six-country European Economic Community, then known as the Common Market, in 1973. The European Union, as it is now known, has since grown to 28 members, with a population of more than 500 million and 20 percent of global GDP, making it the world’s second largest economy after the U.S. Facing growing pressure from British “Eurosceptics,” three years ago, Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, promised to hold an in-or-out referendum on EU membership if his party won the election in 2015; he now leads the “Remain” campaign. Opinion polls currently suggest the result could go either way.

To better understand the uncertainty the Brexit vote poses for British, European, and American interests, UConn Today spoke with Christopher Clark, head of UConn’s History Department in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, who grew up in England.

Q. Many Britons no longer see any benefit in relinquishing English sovereignty to unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, or opening their borders, or subsidizing other member nations in the EU. Will Brexit doom the EU experiment?

A. There are two questions here. Opinion polls taken as the referendum approaches seem to indicate growing support for a ‘Leave’ vote, largely on account of the issues of sovereignty and immigration. The question implies that ‘Britain’ and ‘England’ are interchangeable, but it is likely that England, with 84 percent of the U.K. population, is on balance more inclined towards the ‘Leave’ position than either Scotland or Wales, which of course are much smaller. Whether Brexit would doom the European experiment is hard to say. There is no necessary reason why it should. The EU’s evolution has in fact taken place at different speeds. For example, Britain is not part of either the 19-member Euro currency zone or the 26-member Schengen passport-free travel area, so the EU already functions without Britain as a full participant, and if Britain withdrew this would continue. However, many are anxious that losing its third largest and second wealthiest member would deal the EU a serious blow, and perhaps increase the potency of anti-EU movements in other countries.

Q. The case for Brexit rests strongly on sovereignty and represents a powerful backlash against decades of EU immigration policies that guarantee freedom of movement between member nations as a condition of access to Europe’s single market. Will Brexit enable the U.K. to take back control of its borders and dramatically cut immigration?

A. Again, on immigration there are two issues here, which Brexit campaigners often conflate. EU citizens are free to live and work in any member country, so Britain may not restrict their legal entry. Presently there are about 3 million EU citizens living in Britain, 4.7 percent of the population, though there are also 2 million British citizens living elsewhere in the EU. Complaints about the pressures imposed by immigration, though not new, were exacerbated by the Great Recession and by the austerity policies pursued by the British government after 2010; and in hard times it has been easier – and also politically expedient – to blame the EU for the country’s ills than to address them at home. The claim that Britain does not control its borders is false. Because the U.K. is not in the Schengen area, passports are required of all entrants; because it is an island, illegal entry is much harder and more dangerous than to a country with land borders. Brexit could end the right of free movement (disadvantaging Britons as well as other EU citizens), but it would alter neither the presence of border controls nor the country’s geography.

However, there is no certainty that Brexit would in fact change the rights of EU citizens to move to Britain. Until recently, ‘Leave’ campaigners were suggesting that Britain could have a continuing free-trade arrangement with the EU similar to those enjoyed by Norway, Switzerland, and a few other non-EU countries; but they’ve dropped this approach since it was pointed out that these countries have to accept many of the terms of EU membership – including the free movement of citizens – without the benefits of participating in decisions. So the question of sovereignty, which many ‘Leave’ advocates cite as crucial, is in fact an abstract one. Yes, in theory Britain could take back all the authority that it partly ceded when it joined the EU; but only by cutting itself and its citizens off from interchange with the rest of Europe could it avoid having to comply with any of Europe’s rules.

Q. If Britain quits, will that encourage other EU nations to follow suit with membership referendums of their own?

A. Leaders and officials in several countries have expressed anxiety at this possibility, and there is little doubt that a vote for Brexit would strengthen the voices of anti-EU parties elsewhere in Europe. British ‘Remain’ advocates have warned that this anxiety would, in the event of a ‘Leave’ vote, cause the EU to drive a very hard bargain with Britain over trade and other issues, so as to discourage others from following suit. But the likelihood of referendums in other nations would depend more on their internal politics than on Britain’s decision. Prime Minister David Cameron, after all, promised Britain its referendum not in response to massive public demand but to appease Eurosceptics in his own Conservative party and to counter the threat of losing voters to UKIP [the U.K. Independence Party].

Q. A big problem for Cameron and ‘Remain’ advocates appears to be coming up with a convincing story about the EU’s vital role in finding common solutions to common problems, especially against the backdrop of the ongoing migrant crisis and terrorist threats across Europe. Why does the EU exist and where it is going?

A. It does seem that the ‘Remain’ campaign has relied more on warning of the dangers of leaving the EU than on stressing the advantages of staying in it. But there are big arguments that can be made for the EU and for its continuing with Britain as a member. One is partly historical: European international cooperation has preserved peace for more than seven decades in a region that was three times riven by warfare in the previous seven decades, and Britain has a strong stake in the stability that has resulted. The EU, embodying this cooperation, has created a vast and wealthy economic zone with benefits to all its members; voting to leave this, as the filmmaker Michael Moore recently observed, would be like a Premier League team requesting relegation to a lower division. Finally, cooperation of this kind and on this scale is essential both for competitiveness in a globalized economy and to provide the kinds of protections for the environment and for workers’ rights that cannot be guaranteed by nations individually.

The same arguments apply to the migrant crisis and to terrorism. The EU has done a poor job responding to the refugee crisis arising from Syria and other emergencies, and individual members such as Germany and Sweden have done better on their own initiative. But there is no evidence that Britain’s position would be improved if it were to leave the EU: indeed, it might even suffer from losing the protection of EU rules that grant refugees asylum in the first member country they reach. The same applies to the terrorist threat. Its existing border controls and intelligence cooperation across Europe have helped protect Britain, which, unlike France, has (so far) suffered no serious attack launched from abroad. ‘Leave’ campaigners claiming that Britain would be safer outside the EU, have offered no basis for doing so.

Q. What would Brexit mean for British trade? As an EU member, the U.K. and companies based in Britain can sell their goods freely to customers anywhere else in the EU without those customers having to pay additional taxes to import those goods. With Brexit, will the U.K. need to craft new deals in order to trade with remaining EU countries?

A. The answer to this question cannot be known, because it will depend on the outcome of contingencies, and of negotiations that could begin only if the U.K. were to vote to leave the EU. Britain now has tariff-free access to a 500 million-member single market; a large number of manufacturing and financial-services businesses are based in Britain because of this access, including many North American and Asian companies that have invested in Britain in order to gain a foothold in the EU single market. The least disruptive outcome of withdrawal would be for Britain to join Norway and Switzerland in the European Economic Area; this would retain its access to the single market, but oblige it to accept freedom of movement and to pay contributions for which it would no longer receive a return by way of membership rights or influence. Alternatives would entail negotiating trade terms under World Trade Organization rules, or seeking bilateral agreements with individual nations, which – apart from being inordinately complex and protracted to obtain – are predicted to exclude deals on the financial services that are among Britain’s most valuable trading assets.

Q. Many economists say that it will be costly for Britain to leave the EU, predicting a 15 to 20 percent depreciation of the pound sterling, while additional market gyrations will threaten London’s role as a financial center, making the U.K. a less attractive location for companies that conduct their business in Europe. Do the costs of leaving exceed the costs of staying?

A. It seems highly likely that the costs of leaving will exceed the costs of staying. Currency markets in recent weeks have reflected that expectation. I’ve seen no evidence – except for speculative, imaginary scenarios – that explains how the benefits of leaving could outweigh the overall costs. Individual businesses and sectors of the economy differ of course, and the most common complaint from business advocates of Brexit is that they face stifling EU regulations that they’d be better off without. But most EU regulations are to ensure that the single market works fairly, and while people rail against regulations that restrict them, they rarely complain about (or even notice) rules that benefit them.

The great majority of economists, and a preponderance of British and international businesses and organizations have warned that Brexit would bring significant economic disadvantages. Economists debate merely whether these would be long-term or short-term; but the recent experience of the Great Recession demonstrates the severe consequences even of ‘short-term’ effects.

Q. How would a British exit from the EU affect the U.S.?

A. It is hard to see how Brexit would do the U.S. any good, and it is possible that it will do harm. If there were an economic recession triggered by market turmoil in the wake of a ‘Leave’ vote, the U.S. economy would not be exempt from its effects. Major bilateral and international connections between the U.S. and the U.K., such as the exchange of intelligence data and cooperation in NATO, would be unaffected; but U.S. foreign policy has for decades favored stability in Europe, has supported the growth and development of the EU, and has welcomed British participation in those processes. One reason is presumably that the U.S. and the U.K. share certain affinities and perspectives that the US has reason to wish are represented in the EU; British withdrawal would lose it that advantage. Another reason is that Britain, as a powerful European country, strengthens the EU, and its withdrawal would foreseeably weaken it. The U.S. no doubt notes that the only significant European nation in favor of Brexit is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. These considerations led President Obama, during an April 2016 visit to Britain, to take the unusual step of appealing to the country to remain in the EU.