Today, the people of Britain will decide whether to stay in or leave the EU. Recent polls show that the voters are almost evenly divided. This article points out that some of the major reasons used to justify leaving the EU are not valid.
The Great Recession
One major cause of the voters’ negative feelings about the EU is the European economic crisis. Blaming the EU for this, however, is misplaced. The global Great Recession originated in the U.S. and whether or not Britain was a member of the EU, it would have been affected by it. Furthermore, in either case, Britain would come to the assistance of the European countries that were on the verge of economic collapse simply to keep its neighborhood stable and avoid losing a huge market for its exports. This is exactly what Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway did. After all, it was due to the same reasons that after WWII the U.S. put together the Marshall Plan, giving European countries $12 billion (over $120 billion in today’s dollars) to recover from a war the Europeans themselves had started.
The Refugee Crisis
As it relates to the rise of refugees from the Middle East, the British cannot put the blame on the EU either. There is no doubt that one of the most important reasons for the instability in the Middle East today, and the resulting increase in refugees, is the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The instability that invasion created quickly spread to other countries such as Libya and Syria. Although President Bush was responsible for beginning the Iraq War, it was not the EU but British Prime Minister Tony Blair who paved the way for that war. Therefore, blaming the EU for the refugee crisis is misguided.
Lessons from the Common Market
Some believe that if leaving the EU will become problematic, Britain can easily apply for membership again. This will not be easy. In the first place, Britain’s application will have to be approved by every one of the 27 remaining EU members and, even if admitted, Britain would have to adopt the euro as its currency. Britain can ask for exceptions, but it doesn’t seem likely that the EU would be accommodating at that point, especially since it would set a bad precedent. Exiting the EU now will leave the impression that Britain, once again, wants to enjoy only the benefits, not sharing the costs, of the European integration.
When the Common Market was created in 1957, Britain decided not to join. But why? Since it was Winston Churchill who in 1946 proposed building “a kind of United States of Europe” and it was Britain who initiated the policy of “the collective approach to freer trade and payments” in 1952, Britain must have had a strong reason for not joining the Common Market which was in pursuit of similar goals. There is also the question of what changed between 1957 and 1961 when Britain applied for membership. We maintain that the main reason was that prior to the Acceleration Plan of 1961, Britain could play a free-rider role, benefiting from the tariff cuts among the Common Market members without reciprocating, but after 1961 it could not. The main cause of this abrupt change in the British policy toward the Common Market was very clear to the Common Market members and that is why they kept Britain out of the Common Market for 12 years after it applied for membership. In other words, leaving the EU and coming back to it will not be as easy as some seem to think.
Back in 2004 Jeremy Rifkin wrote in Utne that, “After a thousand years of unremitting conflict, war, and bloodshed, the nations of Europe emerged from two world wars with their population maimed and killed, their ancient monuments and cities lying in ruins, their worldly treasures depleted, and their way of life destroyed. Determined that they would never again take up arms against each other, the nations searched for a political mechanism that could move them beyond their ancient rivalries.” That is how the idea of the European Union came about. If the British prime minister’s warning in 1961, likening Britain’s joining the Common Market to taking a “bracing cold shower” and staying out to taking a “relaxing Turkish bath,” will not sway the opinions of the British voters on Thursday, Rifkin’s reminder should.
Farzeen Nasri is professor of political science and economics at Ventura College