It is tempting to see Britain’s upcoming referendum on the European Union as a mostly British matter. Few outside the U.K. can identify with the rabble-rousing rhetoric of the British tabloid press and fewer still can understand why the British have got themselves into such a mess in the first place.
After all, the idea of a small island nation breaking away from a political union with its neighbours and going it alone smacks of a rather misguided form of post-imperial hubris. No one outside Britain believes that ‘Brexit’ can restore the supposed greatness and splendour of the British Empire — and those inside Britain who believe this are a minority of the electorate.
So why care? What does it matter if a medium-sized European nation leaves the EU? The answer is simple: the referendum on June 23 will have a durable impact on Britain’s place in the world and its relations with countries within and beyond Europe. And the hopes and fears of the British electorate could end up defining global political culture for years to come.
Immediate consequences Let us start with Europe. Here the consequences are obvious. There is no template or blueprint for a nation to leave the most successful supranational organisation of modern history. Brexit would therefore reopen painful questions about what the EU is for and would empower Eurosceptic movements across Europe to push for their own form of ‘independence’.
Brexit would also jeopardise core European policies that are already hanging by a knife-edge after the strains of austerity and the migrant crisis. A common migration policy; the Schengen Area; the European Court of Human Rights; workers’ rights; consumer protections… all of these are at risk if Britain leaves the EU.
Then, of course, there is the question of immigration — the major issue on which the campaign is being fought. Already Britain has moved to clamp down on non-European family migration and student visas. Brexit would mean new restrictions on the rights of European citizens to live and work in the U.K. This would be a disaster for the tourism industry, for business and for universities, all of whom rely on enthusiastic Europeans to plug the gaps in these sectors. Most importantly, Brexit would empower anti-immigrant politics in the U.K. The leaders of the Brexit campaign — amongst them Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith — have all been proponents of a hard-line immigration policy, beholden to nonsensical and unachievable targets.
Some of these anti-immigrant policies will be familiar to travellers from South Asia who have to fulfil draconian income requirements and wait months for extraordinarily expensive visas. In the event of Brexit, all of these policies will be reinforced: legitimate students and employees will be turned away from the U.K., and tourists will be put off by the endless paperwork. It is hard to see how the outsider’s view of Britain will improve in this harsher and more xenophobic climate.
Long-term effects Of course, not all the changes will be visible immediately. Britain will not suddenly descend into civil war in the event of Brexit. Everyday life will continue while treaties are renegotiated and new policies are implemented. Existing rules surrounding trade, migration and law will remain place for years as policymakers hammer out what Britain can and cannot do outside one of the world’s largest economic trading zones.
But the consequences of Brexit will not be measured in weeks; they will be measured in decades. So, in the event of Brexit, Britain will surely retain its position as one of the world’s pre-eminent financial centres, but when the next financial crisis comes the British will find that all those EU consumer protection regulations they took for granted are gone. Similarly, the movement of EU migrants will not cease overnight, but it is perfectly plausible that the French or Spanish will eventually decide to impose reciprocal residence and settlement restrictions on U.K. nationals. These would mean that, many years after the dust has settled on the referendum debate, Britons living in Europe would face new taxes and new limits on what they can do.
It will be the same story elsewhere in Europe. There is little doubt that right-wing nationalist politicians and parties across Europe would take comfort from Brexit: it would give them a powerful new example with which to attack domestic and European elites. Could Brexit be enough to push a Front National candidate into the second round of the presidential election in France in 2017? Or force Austrian conservatives to maintain their coalitions with the extreme-right? Anything is possible when the margins for manoeuvre are so slim.
One thing is certain, though: Brexit would mark a major rupture in modern European history.
For better or for worse, since the tragedy of the Second World War, Europe has presented itself as a place that embodies certain humanist and liberal values — and it was in this spirit that European elites decided to work towards European integration in the 1950s and 1960s. Much has happened since then and it is increasingly hard today to see Europe in such a positive light. Nevertheless, Brexit would threaten what little is left of European values and ensure that both Britain and Europe become ever more parochial and brittle. And this should be of concern, not simply to Europeans, but to like-minded people all over the world.
Emile Chabal is a Chancellor’s Fellow in History at the University of Edinburgh. E-mail: email@example.com