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5 Terribly Depressing Things About Britain’s Flirtation With an EU Exit

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Cameron's referendum on the future of the U.K. is descending into a slanging match over immigration.ALAIN JOCARD AFP/Getty Images

First, I’d like to apologize for my misleading headline. There’s only one thing, not five, that you really need to know about a potential British exit from the European Union: the U.K.’s referendum on leaving the EU, due to be held sometime this year, is the most stupid, reckless, pointless, short-sighted, dishonest, and potentially disastrous political initiative of 2016.

If there were a global competition for political fecklessness, North Korea, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe would blush at their own inadequacy compared to Britain.

I was lucky enough to witness on Monday a “wargame” on the “Brexit” scenario hosted by the London-based think-tank Open Europe, an institution that likes to think of itself as constructively critical of the E.U. project. The organization invited a handful of former leading European politicos to thrash out the issues around which the vote is supposed to pivot, and then, in a second session, to play out the negotiating dynamic on the assumption that Britain votes to leave the European Union. True to my headline, I’ll try to anatomize the debates as best I can.

1. The vote is being held on false premises

This vote is being held because U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron promised it to the powerful Euro-skeptic wing of his own Conservative party to keep his party from losing votes (and candidates) to the anti-E.U. U.K. Independence Party in last year’s elections. The tactic worked, with the Tories winning an overall majority for the first time in 23 years.

But now the time has come to honor the promise. To dress the gamble up as statesmanship, Cameron has demanded the following “reforms” (i.e. concessions) from the 27 other EU member states (with a collective seven times the population of Britain), or else, the implicit threat goes, he will recommend “Brexit” to the voters:

  • No discrimination by the 19 Eurozone states against the nine countries, including the U.K., that don’t use the euro.
  • Clarity that the E.U.’s commitment to an “ever closer union” does not impose an obligation to form a federal European state.
  • A lightening of the regulatory burden on business.
  • Restrictions on workers from another E.U. state claiming benefits in the U.K.

At best, only one of these points—the last one—speaks to the hopes and fears of British people, and that one is misconceived. What the voters really want is what Cameron promised and failed to deliver six years ago when he became Prime Minister: a sharp reduction in immigration, which is raising demands for housing, health, and education services faster than Britain’s cash-strapped government can provide them. The fact that the government’s own statistics and numerous independent studies show that migration from the E.U. accounts for a large net contribution to the U.K. economy is ignored, as is the fact that over 1.2 million Brits depend on the same right to freedom of movement to live and work elsewhere in the E.U.

Alarmingly, the domestic debate is zeroing in on the migrant issue, conflating it with the entirely separate issue of the (essentially Syrian/Afghan) refugee crisis. When the British vote, they may well be thinking first and foremost about the broader migrant crisis, because that is the real issue of the day, even though it’s not the one on the ballot.

2. Britain will give up more sovereignty than it gains by leaving the E.U.

The pro-Brexit campaign promises that the U.K. would regain its sovereignty by leaving. Yet ex-Treasury boss Norman Lamont, acting out the British role in the wargame, was unable to articulate with any conviction how this newfound sovereignty would be put to good use. He said the best thing for the U.K. would be to offer “third countries,” such as the U.S. and China, a continuation of existing trade deals hammered out by the E.U., while keeping the vast bulk of E.U. law—the dreaded acquis communautaireenshrined at home. That saddles Britain with all of its current EU obligations and no influence. As one participant noted: “How is this progress?”

British Euro-skeptics have traditionally chafed most at the social and environmental regulations agreed at the E.U. level. Relieved of these burdens, they claim, British industry could thrive. Their favorite argument thus rests on the premise that it’s progress to sacrifice access to the world’s largest single market for the right to live in a dirtier country with worse labor protection.

3. No one took the risk seriously, and no one is prepared for the consequences

Given its origins as a piece of intra-party gesture politics, and given the sense of superiority and invulnerability that comes from living within the Brussels bubble, it’s understandable that neither Cameron nor the E.U. initially took the risk of a British exit seriously. Well, they have to now, because the polls are already far too close for comfort.

“We will be in unchartered territory and nobody is preparing for this in either European capitals or in Brussels,” said Ana Palacio, a former foreign minister of Spain during the wargame.

Article 50 of the E.U.’s treaty says talks on regulating relations with a former member state have to be wrapped up inside two years, something that would take more goodwill on both sides than was evident on Monday. After that, the two sides would enter a legal limbo that would likely cripple major investment, if it weren’t already crippled.

Enrico Letta, a former Italian Prime Minister, warned that years of time, energy, and resources would be wasted in in-fighting and navel-gazing, risking a decline into irrelevance for the entire region. “The world isn’t waiting for us,” Letta said in a rare airing of the broader perspective.

4. And everyone is going to be mad as hell, especially the Irish

The E.U. has created an elite with a vested interest in forging a European superstate that the British people (and many others) are afraid of. These people—at the European Commission, in the national diplomatic representations, and in the industry lobbies—are going to be in a very bad mood the day after a Brexit. They’ll also need to quickly make some very important decisions. It will be a stage set for the very worst kind of irrational, emotional policy-making.

Leszek Balcerowicz, a former Polish minister, warned that it would be important to make an example of the U.K. to “deter” others from leaving, in an eye-opener for anyone who still thought this was a voluntary club of equals. Karel de Gucht, a former E.U. trade commissioner, and French ex-Minister Noelle Lenoir made brash threats about downsizing the City of London. The danger of a retaliatory spiral that destroys trade, investment, and goodwill couldn’t be clearer.

But the ugliest consequence of a Brexit would be the prospect of a rekindling of the centuries-old tensions between pro-British Protestant and Pro-Dublin Catholics in Northern Ireland and in the Republic. John Bruton, a former PM of Ireland, forgot momentarily that he was in a game and spluttered in a voice shaking with emotion about Britain’s “devastating decision,” an”unfriendly act.”

The E.U. played a major behind-the-scenes role in bringing a 30-year low-level civil war in Ireland to an end in the 1990s. Borders came down, enabling trade and ending smuggling, weakening (though not eradicating) the hold of organized crime on the local economy. Post-Brexit, Bruton said, you have two choices: restore the borders between the Republic and the North, and antagonize the Catholics, or create new ones on the British mainland, antagonizing the Protestants. “I’ve given my life to creating a structure of peace and stability in Ireland,” he lamented. “The people of Great Britain have created a structure of instability.”

5. Brexit could be the start of a very messy unravelling

Monday’s wargame reflected only the views of the “Brussels consensus,” implicitly assuming that the E.U.’s response to the U.K. will be coherent and that mainstream parties will blithely continue to pursue ‘Ever Closer Union’. Only Balcerowicz mentioned, in passing, the galvanizing effect a Brexit might have on centrifugal forces like France’s Front National or Spain’s Podemos, either of which could blow up the Eurozone in a way Greece never could. The free movement of capital, goods, services, and people—all taken for granted in modern Europe, all achievements of a unique experiment in democratic governance in a globalized world—would struggle to survive in any form.

Bruton told me afterwards that E.U. reaction to a British exit could go one of two ways: either it could fall victim to introspection and uncertainty, which fringe movements could exploit, or it could find the resolve for more integration. “It will depend on the quality of leadership,” he said, ominously.

One thing, as Bruton told me, is clear. “The ‘Remain’ campaign will have to work twice as hard as the ‘Leave’ campaign to get the right result…. Because they’re going to have to make a rational argument, whereas the people who want to leave will be able to appeal to people’s emotions without necessarily dealing with the difficulties that will flow from giving in to one’s emotions.”