By Omeed Alerasool
On June 23 2016, the United Kingdom will vote on whether to remain within the European Union. The impending ballot will not only shape the futures of Britain and Europe, but also that of the United States and other global powers. Without the United Kingdom, the EU will face a serious threat to its legitimacy and influence, at a time when Europe needs strength and unity. Ultimately, a Britain-less European Union will falter, shifting the global balance of power for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, Britain without the EU will face immediate economic hardship and a weakened position on the world stage.
European integration was envisioned with two purposes in mind. First, to ensure that war and violent conflict could never again ravage Europe. Second, Europe's founding fathers recognized that no single European state could ever exert the level of global influence as the colonial empires of previous centuries. The United States and Soviet Union, with much larger populations and global reach, were the new superpowers; and large industrializing nations such as China, India, and Brazil were not far behind. Thus, in order to maintain European influence in the world, Europe needed unity.
Through 2016, the EU has proven that when its members cooperate, it can be a force to be reckoned with. Europeans, and their EU institutions in particular, have played a vital role internationally: from making major strides in efforts to combat climate change, to taking the lead in countering Russian aggression in Ukraine, and playing a pivotal role in the negotiations that ultimately concluded in the Iran nuclear deal (half of the negotiating parties were EU members). Without a doubt, unity in Europe strengthened the hand of European leaders and their allies, including the United States.
While the UK has never truly embraced European integration, its presence within the Union has been indispensable. With the United Kingdom, the EU has one of the world's largest economies, largest populations, and two of the United Nations' five permanent Security Council seats. Apart from severely weakening the EU's prestige and international standing, a British departure threatens to inspire other secessionist efforts across the Continent at a time when Europe is already strained by a massive influx of refugees, persistent economic woes, continued Russian belligerence, and a number of populist movements. Europe needs unity to effectively deal with these challenges.
The mechanisms needed to enforce decisions made in Brussels, Strasbourg, Luxembourg, and Frankfurt do not exist. While most governing bodies ultimately derive sovereignty from a monopoly on force, EU institutions are essentially voluntary. What has held the EU together for so long is the idea of Europe itself, of a union of diverse states with common goals, values, and interests, a shared fate from Edinburgh to Athens, Helsinki to Seville. If David Cameron fails to keep Britain in the Union, the aura of inclusiveness and community in Europe, built over several decades, vanishes. Thus, a Domino Effect in Europe is a very real possibility. How then will the European Union engage the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland as it flirts with authoritarianism? By what means can a crumbling EU rein in Viktor Orban in Hungary? What stops Vladimir Putin from expanding Russian influence further into Europe?
A British departure not only undermines the collective interests of Europe, it also puts the UK in a more vulnerable and less influential position. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, a successful "Leave" vote is one of the top global risks for 2016. British economic prospects are bleak without the European common market. Average household income is projected to drop by 1,700 GPB per year, as the UK would be hard-pressed to renegotiate favorable trade deals with its former EU partners. The potential economic uncertainty also has major multinational corporations weighing in against the prospective withdrawal from the EU. At the same time, senior British military officials agree that by stepping away from some of its most trusted and natural allies, a Britain outside the EU would face greater challenges in terms of maintaining its national security than ever before. The aftermath in both economic and political terms would be disastrous to those who wish to have a strong British voice in the world.
Britain is forever tied to the affairs of Europe, with or without its participation in European institutions. Thus, in the face of various crises, British citizens will have to choose: whether to shy away from Europe's common challenges and hope for the best, or to commit to its European family and face the uncertainty head on. A British divorce, however clean or negotiated, inevitably threatens the long term interests of both the European Union and the United Kingdom.
Omeed Alerasool is the Managing Editor of the Fellowship Program at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. He earned a BA in economics and international studies from Boston College, and is an Analyst at Charles River Associates. The views expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not reflect or represent the views of Charles River Associates or any of the organizations with which the author is affiliated.