LONDON – How’s this for apocalyptic? “As a historian I fear Brexit (the British vote to leave the European Union in the referendum this Thursday) could be the beginning of the destruction of not only the EU but also Western political civilization in its entirety.” So said Donald Tusk, president of the European Union, in an interview published last week in the German newspaper Bild.
Tusk is not alone in his worries: Margot Wallstrom, Sweden’s foreign minister, fretted aloud earlier this month that the British referendum could trigger an avalanche of demands for special treatment or in/out referendums in other EU member countries.
“Other EU member states (may) say: ‘Well if they can leave, maybe we should also have referendums and maybe we should also leave,’ ” Wallstrom told the BBC. Like Tusk, she fears that the whole 60-year experiment in European unity may start to fall apart if Britain leaves.
EU politicians are not much interested in what happens to the United Kingdom after it leaves. Britain was usually whiny and often downright obstructive in its dealings with the EU, and if it now chooses to commit a spectacular act of self-mutilation, the general European view will be that it deserves everything it gets.
That is likely to be quite a lot. If the U.K. loses duty-free access to the EU’s “single market” of 28 countries and 500 million people, it becomes far less attractive to non-European investors who want access to that market. It also loses every trade deal it has with other countries, since they were all negotiated by the EU as a whole. Britain could spend 10 years trying to renegotiate them on its own, and end up with much worse terms.
The resultant collapse in national income might be avoided if Britain remained a part of the single market, which is theoretically possible. Both Norway and Switzerland belong to it without being EU members — but they have to pay in just as much as if they were members, and they have to accept the EU rules on freedom of movement, which means that any citizen of any EU member can live and work in their country.
That’s not going to go down well with the leaders of the “Leave” campaign, since their strongest selling points are stopping immigration and “saving money” by ending payments to the EU. They simply could not survive politically if they openly abandoned those goals. Nor would EU leaders be willing to fudge a deal: in order to deter other members from leaving, it will be politically necessary for them to punish Britain economically.
You might wonder how any sane British politician, knowing this, would risk holding a referendum, let alone advocate a “Leave” vote. The answer is a foolish miscalculation (on the part of Prime Minister David Cameron), and reckless ambition (on the part of his would-be successor, Boris Johnson).
Cameron promised the referendum three years ago merely as a device for preserving the unity of the Conservative Party. It would pacify the right wing of his party, which wanted out, but he thought he would never have to hold the referendum because his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, would veto it. Unfortunately, the Conservatives won a narrow majority in last year’s election, the coalition ended, and Cameron was stuck with his promise.
So far, so stupid — and then Johnson, Britain’s somewhat better-mannered answer to Donald Trump, took the leadership of the “Leave” campaign. Johnson was not even a dedicated anti-EU campaigner, but he was certainly dedicated to taking the leadership of the Conservative Party and the prime ministership away from Cameron.
Leading the “Out” campaign to victory, forcing Cameron’s resignation and taking his place was the only way Johnson could achieve his ambition, so he took it. He has been utterly ruthless in his campaign tactics, telling lies he knows to be lies (like how much Britain pays in to the EU), and using anti-immigrant rhetoric that reeks of racism. So he may win.
But he wouldn’t enjoy being prime minister much, given what would happen to the U.K. if he wins. Scotland will certainly vote “Remain,” and it would probably hold a second independence referendum and leave the U.K. rather than be dragged out of the EU by English votes. And the truncated Britain that Johnson would be leading would be dealing with a world of economic woe.
But what about the EU? Would it fragment? Would that lead to the destruction of “Western political civilization in its entirety,” as Tusk suggested? (By that he presumably meant the end of the trans-Atlantic cooperation between the United States and a more or less unified Europe that has characterized Western strategy for the past 60 years.)
Probably not. The EU is in the economic doldrums, and the prospect of several million refugees coming in has facilitated the rise of nationalist parties, some verging on neo-fascist, in a number of member countries. But the advantages of the single market would probably be enough to hold the EU together, especially if the members had the horrible example of Britain’s fate as a warning.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.