In the rough and tumble of a campaign, it can be difficult to engage in a wider debate about the long-term implications of a decision like the one the British people will take on June 23rd. Looking ahead is not a vote winner – many people will understandably be voting with their immediate circumstances at the forefront of their minds – but it is nevertheless important to consider the kind of environment the UK will have to navigate in 10 or 20 years time. How that world will look will in part depend on whether the UK remains a member of the EU, or leaves the EU.
The major political trend on the continent over the last few years has been the increase in popularity of anti-globalisation, Eurosceptic, nationalist and populist parties. Politics in many European countries is becoming increasingly fragmented as people search for answers to the perceived failings of the mainstream governing elites on a number of issues, from youth unemployment to immigration.
Take Germany’s Alternative for Germany, Hungary’s Jobbik, France’s Front National, the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom: they all offer dishonest solutions to people’s often legitimate fears, all deliberately whip up xenophobic sentiment, all counsel protectionist economic policies, and all affect the national political discourse. While one must be careful to overstate the risks facing the EU – few are predicting its collapse – deeper internal divides could lead to a dangerous period of stagnation.
Simply put, the UK could be a part of the solution to these divisions, or both a symptom and a cause. Brexit would be a boon to nationalists in Europe and beyond. The more liberal members of the pro-Brexit camp, Douglas Carswell and Michael Gove for example (both affiliated with the Vote Leave campaign), would of course dispute this. They see a post-Brexit UK as confidently striking free trade deals and engaging with Europe and beyond. Their arguments are based around adapting to technological change and taking advantage of globalisation, a marked contrast with the border control-centred arguments of the likes of Nigel Farage, who see Brexit as an opportunity to resist globalisation.
However it is this Farage strain of Euroscepticism that seems likely to win the day. As well as polls that have consistently shown immigration to be one the most pressing issues for British voters, recent YouGov studies have indicated that ‘most voters who strongly oppose the EU also want to pull up the drawbridge with the rest of the world – not just by stopping the flow of immigrants but also, for example, ending overseas aid….few voters want to leave the EU in order to pursue a more open and generous relationship with the rest of the world’. A post-Brexit trade deal with the single market (that many think would have to involve freedom of movement) or a move toward opening up more industry to the Chinese, for example, would surely be seen as a betrayal of an electorate who voted to leave the EU precisely to stop this.
The most likely outcome of a vote to leave therefore would be a more inward looking, more isolationist Britain, leaving the EU without the economic clout of the world’s 7th largest economy, the military presence of a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and the soft power of the world’s oldest and most historically stable parliamentary democracy. This would reduce both the UK and Europe’s capacity to face future global challenges, feeding the disillusionment of the continent’s people and possibly fanning the flames of nationalist sentiment.
Remaining in the EU is not without dangers: how the UK retains influence whilst the Eurozone integrates more deeply will be a test of the practicality of variable geometry. But the UK has a real opportunity to help shape Europe’s long-term future, should it vote to remain.
The key to reducing the appeal of Europe’s political insurgents lies in showing that Europe does work for people. Having just had a rigorous debate about its weaknesses, the UK would understand these better than most and could lead the way in driving the necessary reform forward. For example, a proper ‘red card’ for national parliaments (more robust than the one recently negotiated by David Cameron), would help reduce Europeans’ sense of helplessness. Europe should strive to become the global leader in data and ‘smart cities’, helping to tailor services more closely to people’s needs. The UK could continue to bolster Germany’s efforts in counteracting the protectionist instincts of some in Europe by encouraging free trade with China, whilst setting the example with measures to protect workers.
Regardless of the decision on June 23rd, the disruptive nationalism that has grown in recent years looks likely to persist. A re-engaged UK inside the EU might just kick-start the fight-back and equip both for the challenges of the next 20 years.