Albion at the E.U. Exit Door

Storm clouds are darkening over Britain’s relationship with the European Union. Prime Minister David Cameron is backing away from the Union, ostensibly seeking to fashion the more distant relationship between London and Brussels needed to keep the U.K. in the E.U. But he may well be putting in motion a political process that will culminate in Britain’s exit from Europe.

That outcome would deal a serious blow to European solidarity, deny the E.U. the valuable role that London continues to play in guiding economic integration and the enlargement of the Union, and shake the foundations of the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Before Britain’s self-isolation becomes irreversible, Europeans and Americans alike had better face up to the potential consequences of the U.K.’s growing estrangement from the E.U.

Britain has long kept its European neighbors at arm’s length. The British empire banked on “splendid isolation,” relying on the English Channel as a buffer against continental entanglement. London initially stood apart from the project of European integration started after World War II. Britain finally joined the European Community in 1973, but has since opted out of the euro zone and other collective initiatives. Protecting British sovereignty from the encroachments of “Eurocrats” in Brussels has consistently served as a political call to arms.

This longstanding discomfort about getting too close to Europe now appears to be morphing into a dangerous stampede for the exit. The Parliament recently voted down Cameron’s already stingy proposal on the E.U. budget. Pressed by Euro-skeptics in his own party, Cameron is edging toward committing to a popular referendum on membership in the E.U. (Recent polls reveal that 48 percent of voters favor withdrawal, with 31 percent against).

Cameron himself favors Britain’s continued membership in the E.U., but only if the country is able to negotiate a more attenuated relationship. He wants to consolidate a “two-speed” E.U. in which members outside the euro zone would contribute less to the Union budget and form their own caucus. He has also indicated that his government will repatriate control of key aspects of social policy and law enforcement from Brussels.

These moves are meant to provide the British the breathing room they need to stay put in the E.U. But rather than consolidating Britain’s place in the E.U., Cameron’s course is likely to precipitate its defection. Of Europe’s 27 members, 10 are outside the euro zone. Most of Britain’s companions in this outer circle, however, plan to eventually join the euro zone, which would leave Britain as the odd man out — absent from what will become the E.U.’s main decision-making venue. The British would hardly countenance remaining in a Union in which their voice would be so marginalized.

Britain is also set to pay a heavy economic price for standing aloof. The euro zone is fashioning banking and fiscal unions that would give Europe’s single market an integrated financial sector. London’s position as one of the world’s financial centers could be undermined as bankers and traders move to the euro zone to take advantage of its common rules and single currency. Britain’s hostility toward the E.U. would only mount.

Britain’s drift from Europe is also a geopolitical dead end. Britain has long served as a bridge between the United States and Europe, but London cannot remain an important partner on matters of European defense should it become a bit player within the E.U. Britain would resign itself to a no-man’s-land if it abandoned its attachment to the E.U., weakening the Union as well as Europe’s tether to the United States.

An irrelevant Britain and an enfeebled E.U. do not augur well for a trans-Atlantic bond central to the defense of Western values and interests. As America’s own defense budget shrinks and those of China and other emerging powers rise, Washington sorely needs capable allies. Britain’s departure from Europe would mean that the U.K., as well as Europe as a whole, gradually slip off America’s radar screen.

If the British, well aware of the likely consequences, still decide to turn their backs on Europe, so be it. But they should at least head down that path with eyes wide open.

Charles A. Kupchan is a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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