Can the UK Survive Brexit?

LONDON – The upcoming referendum on the United Kingdom’s continued membership in the European Union, almost certain to be held this year, could turn out to be yet another major catastrophe to hit Europe. If, as seems increasingly plausible, British voters chose to leave, the result would be a profoundly destabilized EU – and a shattered UK.

The problem is that, with the EU seemingly mired in perpetual crisis, the case for “Brexit” carries significant intellectual and emotional allure. Even before the eurozone’s debt problems emerged in 2009-2010, it seemed clear to many British that, in order to be resilient to shocks, a currency union requires greater integration, in particular, some form of fiscal union. In other words, Europe would need to act more like a nation-state. And that is one arrangement that the UK has never been willing to abide.

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And, on an emotional level, fear of large-scale immigration, from both within and outside the EU, has fueled a populist backlash, which the recent refugee crisis has intensified. The populist response relies on the bizarre but evidently resonant argument that Europe – or, more specifically, Germany – is encouraging the refugee inflows.

Meanwhile, the defenders of Britain’s continued EU membership have made one mistake after another. Many have apparently pinned their hopes on the unrealistic expectation that they could renegotiate the EU treaties. In particular, they tried to present a case for weakening crucial elements of the European integration process, especially with regard to labor mobility.

Furthermore, the pro-EU camp has sounded the alarms over the economic shock that Brexit would cause. This may have seemed like a reasonable strategy, but fear is not rational; it may well drive voters toward the apparent certainties offered by the nation-state.

And could there be a less attractive way of presenting the European story than with the acronym of the major pro-European lobby group Britain Stronger in Europe? “BSE,” after all, calls to mind bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or “mad cow disease,” a slow-developing but fatal degenerative disease. Is the EU not also in slow decline?

The strengthening of the anti-EU camp is very dangerous, and not just for the EU. If British voters agree that the EU’s structure is so flawed that they do not want to be part of it, they are implicitly condemning the peculiar union that is the UK, which includes a fiscal union, but a problematic one.

Indeed, it is far from clear that the UK is a good example of the sort of nation-state that many Europhobes claim is the most desirable form of political organization. It more closely resembles the “composite monarchy” that the historian John Elliott identified as the prevalent form of rule in the sixteenth century, when separate entities, such as Aragon and Castile, had to be held together.

Already in 2014, the Scottish National Party nearly won a popular referendum on independence. Brexit could bolster that cause, potentially spurring similar sentiment in Wales and Northern Ireland. Even in northern England, many voters would be attracted to Scotland’s greater emphasis on social welfare.

These divisions do not coincide with traditional frontiers. Consider the divide between the London region, which increasingly resembles a glittering global super-metropolis, and the rest of the country. As more and more migrants flow into the UK, that rift will become increasingly apparent. Whereas a global city like London needs to be open to the world – thereby attracting top talent, tourists, service workers, and maybe, inadvertently, criminals or even terrorists – most of the rest of the country would prefer to be closed.

What Britons do share at the moment is mainly a growing disillusionment with what the EU can offer, economically and otherwise. But that does not amount to anything close to a shared identity. Indeed, like the EU, the UK suffers from a lack of a unifying identity or story.

Of course, that does not mean that no identity is claimed. Former Prime Minister John Major called the UK “the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers, and pools fillers and, as George Orwell said, ‘Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’…” But what he was really describing was England. Indeed, the key elements of modern British identity all seem to belong to England, rather than to the composite entity.

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Likewise, the established or state church is the Church of England, created almost 500 years ago when King Henry VIII decided that the Catholic pope should not adjudicate his marriage. An institution called English Heritage curates the past, from the prehistoric monuments of Stonehenge to the old country houses that are celebrated in television costume dramas. Money is controlled by the Bank of England; with Scotland and Northern Ireland issuing their own banknotes that English shopkeepers often do not accept.

When Henry VIII adopted the Statute in Restraint of Appeals to Rome, with its declaration that “this realm of England is an empire” – the first clear assertion of the idea of national sovereignty – there followed a brutal campaign to stamp out the old religion. But the effort to build a new, composite identity clearly fell short. This leaves the UK vulnerable to breakdown – an outcome that Brexit would make all the more likely.