We understand the temptation for Britain to pull up the drawbridge and try to separate itself from Europe’s problems. On this side of the Atlantic, we have our own isolationist, “America first” voices. But history tells us that isolationism is a dead end. For centuries, Britain ensured its independence by engaging with Europe, including intervening against Napoleon and Kaiser Wilhelm II.
I have seen some version of this argument a few times in recent months, and as far as the debate over EU membership is concerned it makes absolutely no sense. British foreign policy for three hundred years was to balance against the dominant power in Europe, and so it has “engaged” to the extent that it has only because its government thought that it was compelled to do so to maintain that balance. Those weren’t exercises in “pooling sovereignty” (a phrase I will be happy not to read for years to come after this), but in exercising it to guard against the growing strength of a rival power. Understood that way, British membership in a European political union represents a departure from that tradition, and withdrawal from the same union would involve returning to the way that Britain related to its neighbors for most of the modern era. That certainly doesn’t mean cutting itself off from its neighbors, but it does mean separating itself from a particular political arrangement that it no longer finds suitable. That isn’t “isolationism,” but it is predictable that this is the label politicians in D.C. would describe anything they don’t like or understand.
Britain wouldn’t be “pulling up the drawbridge” if it voted to leave, but would be extricating itself from a supranational organization whose institutions are unaccountable to the people governed by their rules. The U.K. may have benefited from a certain level of engagement with the EEC/EU in the past, but the political costs of remaining a member are becoming higher than many people in the U.K. are prepared to pay. One of the main issues that Leave supporters have with the EU is not just that the EU already wields too much unchecked control over the lives of British citizens, but that it is certain to seek more control and even more centralized institutions in the future. The problem is not just what the EU can already do now, but what it may be able to do in the future. Proponents of “Brexit” believe the seeds of future abuse and unaccountable government have already been planted, and they don’t want to wait for them to grow. Americans should be more sympathetic than most to this concern, since our own separation from Britain was based in part on the desire to reaffirm liberties and local self-government that our ancestors believed were being usurped.
In practical terms, American critics of “Brexit” worry that the U.S. will have less influence in the EU once Britain is out, but this is not as important as it seems. British influence inside the EU has been waning for decades, and seems certain to be reduced even more if Britain were to vote to remain in. A Remain vote would be a clear signal that there is practically nothing the EU can do that will provoke British withdrawal, and that will ensure that Britain’s objections and proposals are ignored more often than they already are. The U.S. would be wiser to accept the U.K.’s departure (if that is what they choose to do) and work on improving its relationship with the remaining members. The U.S. shouldn’t be so locked into supporting the European project that it can’t adjust when one of its European allies gives up on it, and it shouldn’t pretend that it still benefits from U.K. membership in the EU as much as it did twenty years ago. If the British public can change its mind about the value of their EU membership, Washington should be capable of doing the same.