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Britain facing a watershed year

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On a grey and rain-sodden London day at the beginning of 2016, it can be tough to find reason for optimism. The sun still comes up in the morning. At some point, it will presumably stop raining. My grandchildren offer a ray of sunshine; all Star Wars fans, they can just about convince me that, like Princess Leia’s dissident forces, the good guys will eventually win.

Newspaper headlines, however, are pretty good at tempering such sentiments. With economic prospects in China and Brazil looking distinctly gloomy, the world economy is at risk of flat-lining — or worse. Western Asia is in turmoil, and Saudi Arabia and Iran have shown no sign that they are prepared to work together to ease Sunni-Shiite hostilities. Migrants continue to arrive by the thousand at Europe’s fragile borders. North Korea claims that it is building a bigger and better nuclear weapon.

The good news from last month’s United Nations climate change conference in Paris has been buried in an avalanche of geopolitical gloom. And things could get even worse by the end of this year.

In the United Kingdom, where a referendum on whether to remain in the European Union is likely to take place before the end of the year, things could get a lot worse. If, deluded by mendacity and make-believe, Britain votes to quit the EU, the referendum — introduced as a way to placate the growing number of anti-EU voices in the Conservative Party — will have blown up Prime Minister David Cameron’s Cabinet and done irreparable harm to Britain.

I don’t think it will happen. But, then again, I wouldn’t have believed a few years ago, or even a few months ago, that the Republican Party in the United States would be choosing between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz as its presidential nominee. Clearly, populist folly can eviscerate reason and common sense.

A vote against EU membership, especially in such a dangerous international environment, truly would be irrational. For starters, the argument that the U.K. could negotiate favorable terms for selling its goods in the EU makes little sense, as Europe’s single market matters far more to British exporters than the U.K. market matters to European businesses.

Claims that leaving the EU would enable the U.K. to pursue its own commercial interests, like Norway or Switzerland, fail to acknowledge that these countries have to accept the rules of Europe’s single market in order to access it — rules that they have no part in making. At the beginning, the Norwegians called it “fax democracy”: Instructions from Brussels would simply appear in Oslo government offices, to be implemented without debate. This, remarkably, is what British Euroskeptics call “sovereignty.”

But sovereignty is always a slippery concept. Nationalists often argue as though it was akin to virginity — there one moment, gone the next. But sovereignty is far from an absolute condition.

How much sovereignty does the U.K. enjoy as a net energy importer, with much of its future supply set to be provided by nuclear power stations in French and Chinese hands? How sovereign is a country once the hedge funds and bond traders mark it down? And what good is sovereignty when we face environmental threats that can be countered only through international cooperation?

The idea of making all decisions unilaterally may sound nice, but it simply isn’t plausible in today’s integrated world. Even as the world’s fifth-largest economy, the U.K. probably would not find it easy to negotiate favorable trade deals with giants like America, Japan and China.

In fact, if the U.K. decides to go it alone, big investors could soon rush to the exit. By the end of this year, manufacturers could be trying to calculate how much of their plant they should move to the continent. And by January, Britain, having just kicked the EU in the teeth, could find itself attempting to negotiate, under a new prime minister and Cabinet, a new political and economic relationship with the EU’s 27 other members. It looks like mayhem to me.

Of course, it is possible that none of this will happen. British voters could — as our closest friends and allies, from the U.S. to Japan, have advised — choose to remain citizens of the real world.

Following such a vote, the U.K. could begin to repair its reputation in the EU — a reputation that has been severely undermined by our prolonged status as the carping, semi-detached member of the club. Nowadays, even if another EU member agrees with the U.K., it might not say so, in order to avoid being tainted by our toxic brand.

Changing negative perceptions does not mean that we must act against our interests. It means that we must make clear our desire to pursue an agenda that suits others as well as us. It means being constructive, instead of simply criticizing everything from the sidelines.

In this spirit, Britain should be leading the effort to complete the single market. We should be at the forefront of the campaign to complete the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the U.S. We should be pressing for an EU energy policy that reinforces our security. We should be spearheading a European strategy to address the serious challenges facing our neighbors, as well as the countries of Western Asia and North Africa.

If we are doing all of this by the end of 2016, some good will have emerged in a year that seems likely to provide a lot of bad news.

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is chancellor of the University of Oxford. © Project Syndicate, 2016