On June 23, the question of whether Britain will leave the European Union (colloquially known as "Brexit") will be put to a referendum vote. President Obama has already weighed in, declaring that Britain ought to remain part of the EU because the United States desires the partnership of a strong Britain--and that strength is made possible through membership in the EU. These words suggest that the outcome of this vote will no doubt ripple around the globe.
As an American businessman in Europe for more than 30 years, I deeply understand that Brexit could greatly change the way in which business is done in Europe and beyond; it's clear to me that the pro-Brexit point of view not only ignores why the EU was formed in the first place, but also sets Europe up for a future of weakness. At the center of the Brexit question are concerns about sovereignty and the centralization of power in Brussels. But it's not the right question Europe and the world should be asking--and it disregards the very values on which the EU is based.
Now, don't get me wrong: Of course, the relationships that make up the EU are not perfect. But member countries need to be willing to work to make this union a better one, while accepting that they won't always agree--and that that's okay. Even with its flaws, the EU is still a useful tool for uniting member countries in pursuit of common goals--namely, physical and economic security.
Keeping Europe safe and secure was the impetus for the ideation and formation of the European Union. The modern EU grew out of the immediate postwar period, when the countries of Europe sought to guarantee a level of stability in the aftermath of much tumult. Seventy years have passed since then, and so it's easy for many to forget the history of this union and instead focus on its imperfections. Those in favor of Britain's exit from the EU say that Brussels has too much control over the affairs of individual EU countries, that power over European affairs has become too centralized and not representative of the various viewpoints across the continent.
These concerns miss the forest for the trees: The EU provides security not only for member states, but also for the rest of the world. Former British Prime Minister Sir John Major has said that Brexit would leave the EU "gravely weakened" on the world stage. I would have to agree. Should Britain exit the EU, it would no longer have the same access to intelligence and military capabilities brought to bear by the 27 other member states. The pro-Brexit camp is worried about British sovereignty, but if its position wins on June 23, they will face a new reality in which Europe--including Britain--has less power and has less influence on global events.
Membership in the EU is also very important to Britain's economic security. The UK is critical to the EU's success--but it's also true that the EU is equally important to the UK's success. According to IMF data recently published by The Economist, more than half of all British goods exported between 2005 and 2014 were sent to the EU. However, if the Brexit referendum is approved, this trade relationship might be reevaluated and renegotiated. Analysis from Bloomberg Intelligence finds that the UK's membership in the EU may have been responsible for boosting British trade by 10 percent over what it otherwise would have been. Renegotiated trade terms might include tariff increases, which could eradicate the economic benefits Britain has enjoyed from the union.
The fact that President Obama has spoken out on the Brexit vote shows that it could have immense ramifications for the future of Europe's role in the world. In 2000, I cofounded the European Executive Council, as a way for CEOs and other top executives to discuss the challenges and opportunities posed by conducting business in Europe. Taken together, our companies represent many countries, resources, employees and clients throughout Europe, all of which have a stake in this upcoming vote. And given the uncertain and complicated state of world affairs, Brexit is coming at a time when European strength is especially important. History has shown that Europe works better when it's united, when the countries work in tandem. The EU is flawed, but it can be improved: The countries of Europe should be asking how to make the union better, rather than turning to withdrawal. A UK exit from that union likely creates a future in which Europe's role in the world will be significantly--and problematically--diminished. I say fix it, not Brexit.