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Britain in the Wilderness

LONDON – Europe is once again divided between East and West – only this time the fault line runs through the European Union. The eastern members – most notably Poland and the Baltic states – are clinging fast to the EU in the face of Russian aggression. At the other geographic and political extreme, the United Kingdom is threatening to walk out on Europe for good. Decisions being taken today on Europe's eastern and western peripheries are likely to shape a new balance of power.

It is not difficult to imagine Europe after a British withdrawal: a French-German axis in control, Russia empowered, America bypassing a now-weakened Britain, pro-EU Scotland threatening once again to leave the UK, and England turning inward as Euroskeptics convince themselves that Britain always is strongest when alone.

And, given the effects of UK Euroskepticism so far, no crystal ball is needed to foresee the impact on Britain of withdrawal from the EU. As former European Commission President José Manuel Barroso put it in December, “I have never seen in all my years in the European Council…a big country as isolated as Britain."

Indeed, the UK is now a fringe player in deciding a European growth strategy; marginal to trade debates that it used to lead; and, despite being a big lender, almost irrelevant to the future of Greece. And now, though Britain was a signatory of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum guaranteeing Ukrainian independence, only France and Germany attend any serious negotiations. British ministers want it both ways: “Russia must be countered by even greater European unity," they say. “But, by the way, we may be leaving."