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A British Test of Reason

PARIS – If voters in the United Kingdom decide in the country’s referendum on June 23 to leave the European Union, it will not be for economic reasons. They may choose Brexit because they want full sovereignty, because they hate Brussels, or because they want migrants to return home, but not because they expect great economic benefits.

The pro-Brexit camp initially appeared to be holding two strong economic cards. The first was UK citizens’ overwhelming rejection of their country’s net fiscal transfer to the rest of the EU, which currently amounts to 0.4% of GDP. Since Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher first demanded to have “her money back” in 1979, the budgetary costs of EU membership have completely overshadowed its economic benefits in the public’s view.

The second card was the sorry state of continental Europe’s economy. In terms of GDP growth, employment, or innovation, other EU countries, on average, lag behind the UK (and, to an even greater extent, the United States). Whereas EU membership was once regarded as a gateway to prosperity, it is increasingly viewed as a drag on progress.

But lately, as John Van Reenen of the London School of Economics recently put it, the economic case for Brexit has been largely missing in action. Its advocates are at pains to explain what kind of trade and partnership agreements, if any, Britain could enter into with the EU, much less how those agreements would be superior to the current arrangement. As a result, it is tough to argue that the UK would receive a net economic boost – or even that it will not suffer considerably – by leaving the EU.