The Brexit Muddle

LAGUNA BEACH – During a recent visit to the United Kingdom, I was struck by the extent to which the question of whether the country should remain in the European Union is dominating the media, boardroom discussions, and dinner conversations. While slogans and sound bites capture most of the attention, deeper issues in play leave the outcome of the June 23 referendum subject to a high degree of uncertainty – so much so that a single event could end up hijacking the decision.

Of course, the most cited arguments on both sides tend to be the most reductive. On one side are those who caution that departure from the EU would cause trade to collapse, discourage investment, push the UK into recession, and trigger the demise of the City of London as a global financial center. They point to the pound’s recent depreciation as a leading indicator of the financial instability that would accompany a British exit (or “Brexit”).

On the other side are those who argue that Brexit would unshackle the UK from the grip of EU bureaucracy and stop the flow of British taxpayer funds to other countries. The pro-Brexit camp also positions itself as fighting to protect Britain from an uncontrollable influx of immigrants, from imported terrorism, and from laws formulated by foreigners who lack sufficient understanding and appreciation of British culture.

In a noisy and rough campaign – one that has already divided the Conservatives and contributed to the unease within Labour over the party’s leadership – the appeal of such simplistic arguments is obvious. But Brexit is far more complex than the sound bites suggest. And, in fact, many of the underlying issues that should shape the referendum’s outcome are still subject to a high degree of uncertainty. Not only does that explain the inability of the British intellegentsia to reach consensus about the issue; it also leaves the Brexit question at the mercy of last-minute developments.