CAMBRIDGE – A thoughtful British friend of mine said to me a few days before the United Kingdom’s “Brexit” referendum that he would vote for Remain because of his concern about the economic uncertainty that would follow if the UK left the European Union. But he added that he would not have favored Britain’s decision to join the EU back in 1973 had he known then how the EU would evolve.
While voters chose Leave for a variety of reasons, many were concerned with the extent to which EU leaders have exceeded their original mandate, creating an ever larger and more invasive organization.
Jean Monnet’s dream of a United States of Europe was not what the British wanted when they joined the EU 40 years ago. Nor were they seeking a European counterweight to the United States, as Konrad Adenauer, Germany’s first post-war chancellor, had once advocated. Britain simply wanted the advantages of increased trade and labor-market integration with countries across the English Channel.
The EU began as an agreement among six countries to achieve free trade in goods and capital and to eliminate barriers to labor mobility. When EU leaders sought to reinforce a sense of European solidarity by establishing a monetary union, Britain was fortunately able to opt out and keep the pound – and control over its monetary policy. But the opt-out has left Britain a relative outsider within the EU.