Brexit and the Balance of Power

CAMBRIDGE – Britain joined what became the European Union in 1973. This year, on June 23, it will hold a referendum on whether to leave. Should it?

Current polls show a closely divided electorate. Prime Minister David Cameron claims that the concessions he has won from Britain’s EU partners should lay to rest popular concerns about a loss of sovereignty to Brussels and an influx of foreign workers from Eastern Europe. But Cameron’s Conservative Party and his own cabinet are deeply divided, while London’s populist mayor, Boris Johnson, has joined the supporters of British exit.

The question of the costs and benefits of British membership in the EU divides the British press as well. Many mass-circulation publications support “Brexit,” whereas the financial press supports continued membership. The Economist, for example, points out that some 45% of British exports go to other EU countries, and that the atmosphere for negotiating a post-Brexit trade deal would likely be frosty.

Moreover, the EU has made clear to non-members such as Norway and Switzerland that they can have full access to the single market only if they accept most of its rules, including the free movement of people, and contribute to the EU budget. In other words, a Britain outside the Union would gain little in terms of “sovereignty”; on the contrary, it would lose its vote and influence over the terms of its participation in the single market. Meanwhile, rival financial centers such as Paris and Frankfurt would seize the chance to establish rules that would help them win back business from London.