On June 23, when Donald Trump will or will not have won the 1,237 delegates he needs to be nominated, voters in Britain will decide an issue as divisive as Trump’s candidacy: whether the United Kingdom will remain in or leave the European Union.
It’s not a decision that has attracted much attention in the United States. The Obama administration has weighed in, urging Britons to vote to remain. That’s the same approach taken by every American administration for 60 years. The default assumption is that we have done pretty well over the last 240 years with a Union of disparate states, so we should encourage Europeans to form one of their own.
Accordingly, post-World War II administrations cheered the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 and the six-member European Economic Community in 1957, which has now become the 28-member European Union. The original idea was to link the French and German economies, to prevent those nations from going to war again as they did with horrendous consequences in 1914 and 1939.
In line with the wishes of Jean Monnet, the Frenchman who more than anyone else created the EU, its founding document promised “an ever closer union.” In practice this has meant that the EU regulations, specifying for example the shape of bananas that can be sold, apply in EU members whether voters like them or not. It means that a European court can overrule member governments on whether terrorists can be expelled from their countries.
That’s one reason that about half of British voters, to judge from the fluctuating polls, are ready to vote to leave. Britain was not an original member of the EEC but sought to join in 1963. Its application was vetoed by France (most EEC and EU decisions must be unanimous).
French President Charles de Gaulle, in one of his famous press conferences where he would set out answers regardless of the questions asked, enunciated the reasons for his veto. “England in effect is insular, she is maritime, she is linked through her exchanges, her markets, her supply lines to the most diverse and often the most distant countries; she pursues essentially industrial and commercial activities and only slightly agricultural ones. She has in all her doings very marked and very original habits and traditions.”
Among those traditions is English common law, based on centuries of court decisions and precedents, rather than on a written code like the Napoleonic Code, forms of which govern most of Continental Europe. Supporters of the so-called “Brexit” agree with de Gaulle that Britain and Europe are a bad fit.
After de Gaulle’s resignation in 1969, Britain was allowed to join the EU in 1974, and 67 percent of British voters approved that decision in a 1975 referendum. Britain’s economy then was seen as old-fashioned and ailing, dominated by money-losing nationalized steel and auto industries. Europe, after 30 years of fast recovery from war damage (the French still refer to les trente glorieuses), seemed modern and dynamic.
Now the picture is different. Margaret Thatcher’s reforms freed up the British economy, while Europe’s welfare burdens weighed their economies down. Britain has enjoyed sharp economic and job growth since the 2008 financial crisis; the Continent has zero-growth economies. In pursuit of “ever closer union,” most European countries embraced the Euro common currency. Gordon Brown, as chancellor of the exchequer, wisely kept Britain’s pound.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister David Cameron negotiated changes in Britain’s relationships with the EU. But many Conservatives feel that the changes are not enough. Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith, who as cabinet members pressed successfully for major education and welfare reforms, have announced they support “Leave.” So does the most telegenic and effervescent British politician, Conservative London Mayor Boris Johnson.
Some observers associate Leave supporters with the anti-immigrant feelings of some Donald Trump voters. But Gove, Duncan Smith and Johnson are not nativists, and recent terrorist attacks in Europe undermine the idea that the EU provides security.
“Remain” supporters predict dire consequences if Leave prevails, and Leave supporters admit that new trade treaties would have to be negotiated. But that’s a matter for Britons to sort out.
U.S.-U.K. intelligence and military cooperation would continue, and Britain would remain just one of five NATO members (with the U.S., Estonia, Greece and Poland) spending the required 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. American elites’ sentimental attachment to a United Europe is understandable. But we can live happily with Britain whether it Leaves or Remains.