Over the past week, I have often been asked what I think about the British referendum vote to leave the European Union, or to seek “Brexit.” My standard response is that I would be happy to explain, provided the sight of me ranting and shrieking obscenities does not bother my listeners. In my view, Brexit is quite literally nothing short of national suicide. It is a cataclysm that that country must and can avert, at all costs.
In saying this, I run contrary to the view of many conservative writers who seem delighted by the vote. Those observers make some legitimate points about the referendum and the national and anti-globalization values that it proclaimed. Yes, the vote did represent a powerful proclamation by a silent majority who felt utterly betrayed and neglected by global and corporate forces. The Leave vote, they rightly think, was a mighty voice of protest.
Actually leaving, though, is a radically different idea. At its simplest, it means that Britain would abandon its role as a dominant power in Europe, a continent that presently has its effective capital in London, and with English its lingua franca. It also means giving up countless opportunities for young people to work and travel across this vast area.
Alright, perhaps those losses are too tenuous and speculative, so let’s be very specific, hard-headed, and present-oriented. How would Britain survive outside the EU? If the country had three or four million people, it could revert to subsistence agriculture, but it doesn’t—it has 64 million. That means that the country absolutely has to trade to survive, whether in goods or services. Fantasies of global commercial empires apart, the vast majority of that trade will continue to be what it has been for decades, namely with other European nations. All discussions of Brexit have to begin with that irreducible fact.
So trade on what terms? Since the referendum vote, it has become starkly apparent that none of the Leave militants had given a moment of serious thought to this issue.
One attractive model is that of the associated nation, which enjoys access to the free market, but is exempt from EU laws and regulations. Conservative politician Boris Johnson recently published an op-ed suggesting just such a model, drawing on the example of Norway, in what has been called a kind of EU-Lite. Beyond accessing the single market, he also specified that Britain would be able to maintain continent-wide mobility for its own people, while restricting immigration of foreigners into Britain. He also declared that future fiscal deficits could be solved by the limitless veins of fairy gold to be found under his house. Well, I am making up that last part, but it is perhaps the most plausible part of his scenario. European leaders made it immediately clear that no form of association would be contemplated under which Britain could exclude migrants. Mobility of labor must run both ways.
And that Norwegian example demands closer inspection. What it means in practice is that Norway’s government pays a hefty price for its EU relationship and market access, in the form of continuing to pay very substantial sums into the EU, while agreeing to easy immigration policies. The only thing it lacks is any say whatever in EU policy-making.
Let me put this in U.S. terms. Imagine that Texas seceded from the union. The American President is amenable to the scheme, and explains how it would work in practice. Henceforward, he says, Texas would be completely independent! It would however continue to pay federal taxes, while having no control of immigration or border policy. Nor would it benefit in any form from federal aid, support or infrastructure projects. Oh, and Texas would no longer have any Congressional representation in Washington, to decide how its funds were spent. It seems like a bad idea to me, continues the president, but hey, it’s your decision. Enjoy your sovereignty!
As they begin to consider the effects of Brexit, the Leave leaders are facing an irreconcilable contradiction. On the one side, you have the more mainstream figures, like Boris Johnson, who will very soon be pleading for a Norway-style association model, with all the negatives I suggested earlier. Against them will be the populists, like Nigel Farage’s UKIP, who will accept nothing implying open immigration, no form of EU-Lite. Rejecting that element, though, also means abandoning any hope of access to the single European market. If implemented, that would mean industrial and financial collapse.
But there is a good side to that outcome! As the British economy disintegrated, millions would be forced to leave the country to seek their livelihoods elsewhere, and among those would be many of the recent immigrants whom UKIP so loathes. Who would choose to remain in a beggared and impoverished junkyard? The immigration problem would thus solve itself, almost overnight.
Realistically, the most likely outcome for Britain is some kind of association status, which means many of the burdens of EU membership, but without the essential pluses, of being able to control the process from within at governmental level. And the advantages of seeking that solution rather than the present model of full EU membership are… are… hold on, I’m sure I can finish this sentence somehow. No, in fact, there aren’t any advantages.
Full British membership in the EU as constituted presently—with all its manifold flaws—is infinitely superior to any possible alternative outcome.
But surely, one might object, the referendum can be neither reversed or ignored? Actually, it can, easily, if any politician had the guts to do so. Nor do we need a second referendum to achieve that result. Contrary to the impression given by many media reports, the recent referendum was an advisory and nonbinding affair, with no necessary legal consequences whatever. In terms of its necessary impact on legislation, it had precisely the same force as a Cosmopolitan magazine survey on sexual predilections. In the context of constitutional laws and customs established over a millennium or so of British history, the referendum exists for a single purpose, namely to advise the deliberations of the Crown-in-Parliament. Parliament must vote on this issue, and if it decides to overturn the result, then so be it.
If at that point, British parliamentarians still decided to validate the Brexit result, then so be it, and may their country’s ruin be on their conscience. But the decision remains entirely theirs.
Philip Jenkins is the author of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels. He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.