Although many Americans are lost in the midst of the wild 2016 U.S. presidential primary season, there is another election being held in a few months that may hold momentous consequences for America’s allies and for the United States itself: the June referendum on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. A referendum long promised by Prime Minister David Cameron, it may well shape the destiny of Great Britain and the European Union for decades to come, and will surely have important consequences for the United States. Moreover, the political dynamics of the referendum and the attendant forces at work within the EU are not too different from what is happening in the United States.
In very important respects, the struggle for the soul of Europe is remarkably parallel to the outsider candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, populists who have turned their ire on the party establishments and economic elites who have created the current situation in which the U.S. finds itself. Should a Brexit occur, and it probably has something close to a 50-50 chance of succeeding, it might actually provide an opportunity for a healthy reevaluation of the purpose of the European Union and the meaning of democratic governance and accountability in a 21st-century European society.
Great Britain’s relationship with the European Union has always been ambiguous. Given its “special relationship” with the United States, it is only natural for Britain—which of course is not physically part of the continent—to be somewhat aloof. That aloofness is in part reflected by the fact that Great Britain never abandoned the pound for the euro, something 19 other nations in Europe have done. Moreover, the British have always been suspicious of the supra-national administrative state across the English Channel in Brussels. And indeed, the sometimes-ridiculous bureaucratic diktats coming out of Brussels have done nothing to endear the British to the idea of a supra-national state that is taking form in the form of the EU.
But all of the above is pretty much already baked into the cake. And, when Cameron finally called for a referendum on Feb. 20, he had done so in the calculated belief that the pro-EU forces in the country would prevail. He may have miscalculated. While the latest polls suggest a near dead heat between supporters and opponents of Britain remaining in the EU, it seems clear that the passion and intensity are on the side of withdrawal. In a vote that may well be decided by just a few percentage points, turnout and willingness to do the hard work of mobilizing others to vote may be critical. While numerous members of the governing Conservative party have abandoned Cameron and come out in favor of exit, none was probably as important as the dramatic announcement of support for a Brexit by Boris Johnson, mayor of London and a potential future Tory leader. His announcement on Feb. 21 helped galvanize the Brexit supporters, and has clearly created a sense of optimism on the part of the “out” campaign that may be hard to overcome.
Johnson himself is a fascinating character, author of an interesting biography on Churchill, and clearly a man with keen ambitions. His politics have a populist, nationalist edge that is very much consistent with Trump’s own stated views, with Johnson castigating the undemocratic, bureaucratic character of the EU governing structure, warning of the consequences for the traditional freedoms of the British citizen being absorbed into a European superstate, and blasting what opponents call a fear-mongering campaign being waged by supporters trying to convince the British electorate that a Brexit would lead to economic disaster. For their part, those supporting Britain’s continuance in the European Union, emphasizing the recent concessions negotiated by Cameron with his EU counterparts just last month, believe that the only real future for Britain, politically and economically, lies in the EU where it can serve as a counterweight to those who have advocated for “ever closer union,” and that this can all be done without surrendering the nation’s traditions and culture.
But the Brexit debate has to be viewed in the larger political context, or Zeitgeist. The British people are being asked to remain in a political structure experiencing a profound, possibly existential crisis of confidence. Having seemingly dodged the bullet with the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the resulting Greece default drama, Europe is now being swamped with refugees—most of them Muslim—from Syria and other parts of the Middle East. Germany will have soon taken in more than a million refugees by this summer. The cataclysm under way in Syria and other parts of the Middle East are redrawing the political map of Europe, and the horrific terrorist incidents in Paris and most recently in Belgium—carried out by Moslem Jihadists—has helped create potentially tectonic shifts in the political landscape.
All of the former assumptions regarding multicultural, post-national borders in postmodern Europe are now called into question. It is distinctly unhelpful for the pro-EU campaign—led by Cameron—to have all of this play out in the weeks and months prior to the election. Meanwhile, voters elsewhere are expressing their displeasure with the status quo. Hungarians seem more than satisfied with Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s nationalist, anti-immigrant stance, which relies heavily on an appeal to Hungary’s Christian history. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has just been rebuffed in state elections, as the Alternative for Germany party made major gains at the expense of the Christian Democrats with an anti-immigrant message. Surveys show Sweden, the most liberal and tolerant of societies, becoming increasingly nervous over heretofore almost unchecked immigration, and as the Swedish Democrats gain in popularity. And, in Belgium, Netherlands, and France, anti-immigrant parties continue to demonstrate strength in opinion surveys.
The Brexit referendum will be decided at a time of the greatest vulnerability for the EU. A decision by Britain to withdraw would possibly unravel Britain itself, as Scotland, which is more pro-EU, would surely seek another try at independence following its previous rejection in 2014. And, it could lead to an unraveling of the EU itself, as countries like Poland and Hungary, and possibly others, begin to rethink the advantages and disadvantages of continuing with the status quo. There is manifest unhappiness among citizens of many of the counties in Europe, where they have been told for decades by the political elites that the EU project was the only game in town.
In spite of the overwhelming support of European economic and political elites, many have not gotten the memo. Nationalism still holds strong sway in many quarters, and the apparent inability of the EU to manage the immigration crisis and perceived impotence in the face of terrorism has only added to the doubts about the European integration project. Moreover, for many, the EU appears manifestly undemocratic, and citizens of countries like Poland and Hungary, only recently in historical time freed of Soviet imperial ambitions, may not wish to be governed by an unaccountable technocratic elite in Brussels.
Ironically, an unraveling of the EU may open up new opportunities for Russia to play an enhanced power politics role in European affairs, a possibility that surely keeps anti-Russian foreign policy elites awake at night. On the other hand, the EU in its current form and with the current administration in Washington has done little to stop the expansion of Russian territorial and other geopolitical ambitions in Crimea, Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere. The next few months may well determine the future of the European Union, of Great Britain, and the influence of Russia in shaping the future of the continent.
Dr. Euel Elliott is a professor of public policy and political economy and the associate dean in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas. He is the author of the soon-to-be published books, Paths not Taken: The What Ifs of American History from the War for Independence to the Bush-Gore Election and Adventures of Maia Neeri of the 24th Century.