The Causes and Consequences of Brexit

MADRID – The prospect of a British exit from the European Union is well and truly upon us. It seems increasingly likely that the upcoming European Council meeting will result in a deal on the conditions of the United Kingdom’s EU membership – a deal that will be put before British voters in a referendum, possibly as early as this summer.

But, just as everything rushes forward, Britain and the EU need to take a moment to think carefully. After all, despite assurances from both sides, no one knows how the referendum will unfold, much less how to navigate the aftermath if British voters chose to leave.

The referendum is the most immediate unknown. Past experience shows that, when voters make such decisions, they rarely focus on the issue at hand. In referenda on the EU’s draft constitution in 2005, for example, the Dutch focused on the euro, while the French worried that Polish plumbers would take their jobs.

So far, the signs indicate that the upcoming British referendum will follow the same pattern, with voters focusing more on simplistic ideas, prejudices, and emotions than pragmatic considerations. And the anti-EU camp has been by far the more passionate – and the more inflammatory in its rhetoric – side.