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Will Britain Pull the Plug on the EU?

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Whether Britain votes to remain in or leave the European Union (EU) on June 23, the point has been made and registered around the continent that the British have more faith in the white rabbits of political fairy tales than they do in the sinkhole associated with Brussels and its common economic policies.

Even though the vote is mostly a creature of English party politics—Prime Minister David Cameron chose June 23 for a showdown with the noisome “Eurosceptics” who make up half of his fox-hunting party—the negative consequences of the vote for Europe and Great Britain will exceed any advantages that he wrings from the party’s recalcitrant right wing.

Punters, who in Britain predict outcomes more successfully than pundits, are now giving a slight advantage at the polls to the so-called Leavers. But with more than 12 percent of the electorate undecided and unlikely to make up their minds before they vote, the referendum on Britain and Europe could still tilt in favor of the Union.

And the senseless killing by a Neo-Nazi of the well-liked Labour Minister of Parliament Jo Cox, who was campaigning in Yorkshire for Britain to stay in Europe, casts a pall on the Leave position. According to some witnesses (but not all), her killer was shouting “Britain first” (also the name of a racist/fascist political party) as he shot and stabbed her.

Who wants Britain out of Europe? The main constituencies for Britain leaving the EU are working class Labourites—tired of losing their jobs to Slovenian immigrants—and right-wing nativists (among them is UKIP, the British Independence Party, as well as the usual line up of skin heads), who see all good things British (“David Beckham’s right foot. . . David Beckhams left foot. . .”) going up in the smoke of endless regulations from Brussels or being overrun by a long line of immigrants, who have clogged up local social services.

Another way to view Brexit is as a confidence vote in the party leadership of David Cameron, as the formidable Brexit advocate, former London mayor Boris Johnson, would love Cameron’s job as prime minister even more than he would like to get Britain out of the EU.

That the French city of Calais has become a Syrian refugee waiting room, for those on their way to England, is another reason some Britons would like to retreat to their “island fortress.” “Let’s get our country back,” is the typical refrain of Leavers. Another poster reads: “Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU.”

I am bit surprised there are no cartoons of an innocent British virgin, on a swing set at school, being prayed upon by some menacing European pervert: “Here, little girl, you want to try some tariffs?”

In economic terms, Britain sends the EU about $20 billion a year, and gets back (directly) about $7 billion. Thus the English contribute about $13 billion to the Union, which, depending on how you look at it, buys them either continental peace and prosperity or welfare payments to Greek civil servants retiring with some ouzo at age 52.

But it would be naïve to assume that Britain gets nothing more from the European Union than some milk subsidies. For starters, even though the local economy kept the British pound, the financial center of Europe remains in London, where banks, brokerage firms, and other financial intermediaries trade more Euro-based investments than in any other EU capital.

Compared to London, Paris has the feel of a prosperous regional market (where they still take long lunches) and Frankfurt has the air of Cincinnati, a well-to-do merchant city on a river.

British companies (to a degree that is difficult to quantify) also enjoy a huge competitive advantage with their sales into Europe, as some products reach English shores via the Commonwealth for transshipment to the prosperous continent.

Nevertheless, some of the British workforce only sees the negative influence of the EU on their job security and paychecks. Large ships are more likely, now, to be built in Gdansk than Glasgow, much the way Airbuses are pieced together around the continent rather than in the hangars of, say, Rolls-Royce. Officially, Labour is opposing Brexit, but that party itself is fractured on the question.

Nor does it help the Remainders that the vote is taking place when Europe appears headed into receivership while the modern equivalent of Coxey’s Army floods across its porous borders. Why vote to stay with a loser?

In voting to leave the European Union, the skeptics believe that Britain can maintain its positive trade relations with Europe and global financial position while booting out Bulgarian emigres living on the English dole and saving $13 billion in subsidies to Italian vintners (et al.) who knock off for lunch not long after the their third morning coffee. But how forgiving will Europe be with bilateralism if trashed by Brexit isolationists?

Politically, that the EU has held at bay endless European militarism (a fixture since the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century, if no before) is a historical argument lost on the iPhone generation, for whom the Franco-Prussian wars of the 19th and 20th century are as distant as formal tea service on the job at 4 PM.

If Britain does decide to exit the common market, the chances are good that a Doomsday scenario might take hold in Europe, which could unfold as follows:

—With Britain out of the European Union, the Scottish Nationalist Party (most dominant in Scotland) would likely call for another referendum on Scottish independence, which this time would pass, just before Scotland applied for membership in the EU.

—Britain’s exit from the EU would also strengthen the far right in France’s next presidential election in spring 2017, as the French would see themselves as the only counterweight in Europe to German dominance, which is never a good idea.

—Brexit would also be a huge victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin, no fan of David Cameron, Barack Obama, and NATO policies that have pushed the borders of the community into the Baltic States and close to Ukraine.

—Putin would view Britain’s exit from the community as clear evidence that the United States has little influence in Europe, and he could use the moment to menace Latvia, Georgia, Ukraine or Moldova.

—Brexit could well reignite the civil violence in Northern Ireland, as its border with EU-member Ireland would become “closed,” despite its openness being a key feature of the Good Friday Agreement.

—Finally, Brexit could hasten debt default not just in Greece but in other Mediterranean countries that for the moment enjoy the full faith and credit of all major European countries. If that backstop is reduced to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, the chances are good that her government would fall to parties on the right, and her successor would probably be less keen on having Berlin backstop all the questionable loans in southern Europe.

If you want to criticize the EU, do so for not spending much if any time on the question of dissolution when drafting the articles of incorporation—making it easy for one country, in this case Britain, to have a simple yes or no vote on membership, almost sixty years into the experiment on common economic polices.

In retrospect, the EU could have demanded a two-thirds voting majority or a confirmation vote in the European parliament. Or it could have mandated that the exit period take place over ten years or so.

Instead, Britain votes June 23 on the future of Europe, and those holding the keys, among others, are unemployed fisherman on the North Sea coast, for whom the EU is a license for Dutch or German trawlers to fish in their local waters.

Ironically among those most supportive of the EU are London millennials, for whom Europe remains “cool.” The problem with this bloc of voters, according to press reports, is that few of them know when the vote will be held or have registered to cast a ballot (“whatever. . .”).

In many respects Leavers are the spiritual heirs of appeasement, the belief of Prime Neville Chamberlain and others that there is no reason for England to become entangled in European affairs. Or as he put it when Hitler wanted the Czechoslovak Sudetenland in 1938: “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

In response, Winston Churchill (never to be confused with the Leavers) scoffed that the British ruling class liked “to take its weekends in the country while Hitler takes his countries in the weekends.” Alas, Brexit is this generation’s Munich, and as Europe is in the midst of the wettest spring in 100 years, there are umbrellas in the air.

More articles by:

Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author of many books including, most recently, Reading the Rails.

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