The American Interest asked Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations and John Fonte of the Hudson Institute to debate the implications for the United States of a British withdrawal from the European Union—a question up for a vote in a referendum on June 23. This is a subject that President Obama weighed in on publicly during a recent visit to the United Kingdom, reportedly against the advice of his aides. It is an emotional subject in the UK and, apparently, only somewhat less so in the United States.
Be it resolved that: It is not in U.S. national interests for the UK to exit the EU.
For those of you (like me) who have trouble unpacking double negatives and were not on the high school debate team, I should make clear at the outset that I have been asked to make the case from the U.S. perspective for why it would be better if the UK were to remain in the EU rather than choose to exit.
As you would expect, the reasons are mostly strategic, but one argument is economic or at least directly flows from economics, namely, that Brexit would leave the UK poorer—the only debate is how big a hit British GDP would take and for how long—and that a poorer UK would have fewer resources to devote to all aspects of its foreign and defense policy, thereby reducing what it could do in realms ranging from aid to defense even if it wanted to do more.
All of which raises a related point: A UK that left the EU would be less inclined to take on a substantial regional or global role. It would almost certainly become more parochial, as domestic economic and social challenges would take center stage even more than they already do. One of the most important partners the United States has ha
d for some 75 years would become less capable and less dependable.
U.S. influence in Europe would also suffer if Brexit were to happen. Washington and London do not always agree, but they tend to agree more than they disagree, and a Europe without Britain’s voice would likely become more distant and less inclined to work with the United States.
Brexit would also leave the EU and Europe more broadly worse off. The project of European construction that began in the aftermath of World War II and that has done so much to ensure that Europe did not again become a venue of instability and violence would be further endangered. I say “further” because Brexit would not take place in a vacuum. To the contrary, it would occur amidst what is already a Europe in the throes of a crisis born of the re-emergence of geopolitics in the form of a renewed Russian security threat, more frequent terrorism, the flood of refugees from Syria and elsewhere, prolonged low economic growth, recurring fiscal uncertainty in Greece and potentially elsewhere, and demographic challenges ranging from aging to the difficulty of integrating immigrant populations. Nationalism and populism are already on the rise across the continent; a vote in favor of Brexit would add to the momentum.
A decision by the British people to leave the EU would also put the question of Scotland’s independence squarely back on the agenda. Indeed, many in Scotland would argue for independence in order to remain an EU member—a popular refrain that could well result in a vote to secede from the UK. The United States would not benefit from a difficult, controversial public debate in Scotland that could result in this country’s no longer being able to station nuclear weapons and submarines in Scotland at a time when Russia is again judged to be a threat to Europe.
Fragmentation would be unlikely to stop there. What happened in Scotland could well have ripple effects across what remained of the disunited United Kingdom. In particular, Great Britain’s departure from the EU and Scotland’s departure from the UK would likely increase tensions in Northern Ireland between pro-UK Unionists and both Republicans and Nationalists seeking to join Ireland. Raising the profile of “final status” issues at a time when the two sides have shown themselves unable to face up to the past or work together in the present could further distract London.
For decades, the most common comment about Europe was how boring it had become. This was mostly true. But one has only to look back on the previous century, when Europe was the venue of two world wars and a Cold War, to recall just how dangerous being interesting can be. Brexit alone will not make Europe that much more interesting, but it would contribute to the slow unraveling of a European order that has mostly worked in favor of U.S. interests in the world.
Richard Haass never mentions the core issue of the Brexit debate: democratic self-government. I will argue that the return of democratic self-government to Britain is beneficial for the United States, for the Transatlantic Alliance, and for the status of liberal democracy in the world, as well as, most significantly, for the British people themselves.
In plain language, Justice Minister Michael Gove, one of the leaders of the Brexit campaign, stated the most important reasons the British should vote to leave the EU: “the laws we must all obey…should be decided by people we choose and who we can throw out…. But our membership in the European Union prevents us…from being able to choose who makes critical decisions which affect all our lives. Laws which govern citizens in this country are decided by politicians from other nations who we never elected and can’t throw out.”
More than half of British laws are initiated not by the elected House of Commons but instead by an unelected bureaucracy, the European Commission in Brussels. Directives of the European Commission must be transposed into national law and cannot be substantively modified by the British parliament. The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, in the Factortame case in the 1990s, established the supranational legal supremacy of European law over the political supremacy of the British Parliament.
I agree with Richard Haass that we are witnessing “the reemergence of geopolitics.” However, examining Brexit purely through the lens of American strategic interests argues for a strong independent Britain capable of acting without the shackles of a 28-member “common European defense policy.” The new EU project for a European army according to Colonel Richard Kemp, the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, would “undermine deterrence and cripple NATO.” The U.S.-led NATO would compete for scarce resources with an ineffective EU army. If Britain remains in the EU it will “sign up to a European army,” Kemp notes.
In the intelligence arena General Michael Hayden, former head of the CIA, declared that the EU “gets in the way of the state providing security for its own citizens.” Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6 sees two important security gains with Brexit (1) Britain would be able to deport Islamic extremists without inference from EU courts and (2), the UK would gain greater control over immigration from the European Union. The military and intelligence services of democratic nation-states (MI6, CIA, French DGSE, U.S. army, and so forth) provide the security of the free world, not the institutions of the European Union, which are often a hindrance to Western security (through transnational court rulings, for example). Likewise the peace in Europe for the past seventy years is the result of the nation-states of NATO and the U.S. commitment to the continent, not the existence of the European Union.
What about Britain’s positive influence in the European Union? Unfortunately this influence peaked during the Thatcher years. In a recent speech Thatcher’s former Treasury chief, Lord Nigel Lawson, declared “over the past twenty years there have been 72 occasions in the Council of Ministers on which the United Kingdom has opposed a particular measure. On each and every one…we have lost. A scoreline of nil-72 is not very impressive.”
Perhaps recognizing its weak arguments on democracy and security, the Remain campaign is focused almost exclusively on economics, in what Brexiters decry as “Project Fear.” A widely criticized Treasury report is suggesting that, with Brexit, GDP in 2030 will not be as high as it would have been if Britain remained in the EU (most economists predict growth either way and do not claim that “Brexit would leave the UK poorer.”) A major problem with the Treasury report is that it bases some of its results on the “number of households” in 2015, not the much larger projected “number of households” in 2030: hence comparing apples and oranges. Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, a self-described “Europhile,” said “George Osborne’s [Treasury Minister] dishonesty is simply breathtaking.”
Britain, with the world’s fifth largest economy, will have plenty of opportunities to expand its GDP under Brexit. It could negotiate its own trade deals with China, India, Singapore, and the United States and represent itself within the WTO instead of being one voice among 28 on the EU team. Further, Britain would be free of the heavy burden of EU regulations. Even with this burden today, Britain’s economy is stronger than that of the Eurozone.
Whether Britain votes to leave or remain in the EU, the future is uncertain. However, we do know that the EU is determined to promote more integration. This goal of “ever closer union” was (and is) supposed to foster greater harmony among European peoples. Instead the drive for “more Europe” (as the Eurozone and migration crises have revealed) has renewed old antagonisms and created new ones (Greeks vs Germans, Hungary and its neighbors, Austria against Germany.) The future of “more integration”─and, thus, by definition, the weakening of democratic nation-states─means more antagonisms, less democracy, less security, and less cooperation with the United States. You want to check “populism,” then stop promoting “ever closer union.” Brexit, Michael Gove declared, could set “an inspirational example to the world” by the re-assertion of democratic self-government. As John Bolton put it, “Americans should welcome Britain’s coming Declaration of Independence.”
The proposition I was asked to address was whether it was in the U.S. national interest for the United Kingdom to exit the EU. It is not, for all the strategic and political reasons to be found in my original post.
What Mr. Fonte has addressed, however, is a related but distinct question, namely, whether it is in the national interest of the UK to exit the EU. This is obviously a matter for British voters to decide, something they will have a chance to do in the near future. My own view, though, is that Brexit is most distinctly not in the country’s interest. Much has been written and said about the economic consequences, but even if one concludes that the case made by government officials is overly negative, the direction cannot be disputed. Brexit will hurt the British economy, reduce the country’s GDP, discourage investment, and lower the standard of living for many of its citizens.
The fact that the EU bureaucracy often acts in ways that are not necessarily transparent, accountable, or efficient is true. But these realties do not offset the advantages that accrue to the UK from association. Nor do they preclude the UK and other EU members from bringing about reform that would reduce the so-called democratic deficit.
I for one do not see more collective or integrated European efforts in the defense sphere as a problem, so long as any European defense entity is interoperable with NATO and closely associated with it. The real challenge facing European defense is not so much how it is organized or even how much is spent on it but rather how the resources are spent. There is far too much duplication and not nearly enough coordinated specialization.
The EU provides a mechanism for coordinating intelligence and law enforcement efforts designed to frustrate terrorism. The problem has been too much national activity and not enough pooling of effort. Brexit would make an admittedly bad situation worse.
I am also not worried about supra-nationalism in Europe gaining much momentum. The choice moving forward is less between a United States of Europe and a United Europe of States than it is between the latter and something far less integrated. The danger, something Brexit would contribute to, is the further undermining of the European project itself.
Finally, advocates of Brexit must have not just the courage of their convictions but the intellectual honesty to face up to the likely consequences of their convictions. Brexit would set in motion centrifugal forces that would lead to the dissolution of the UK. Scotland would likely opt for independence and, once on its own, seek EU membership. And Brexit would bring to the fore deep divisions that persist in Northern Ireland, reinforcing the pressure to hold another referendum, in this case on union with Ireland, something that would also bring with it membership in the EU. Unionists would oppose any such move, and it is not hard to imagine political gridlock, renewed violence, or even calls to partition Northern Ireland between a rump UK and Ireland if a majority in the North were to opt for joining Ireland.
In short, Brexit would leave both the EU and the UK weaker and more divided. How any of this could be good for the people of the United Kingdom, Europe, or the United States is a mystery.
Mr. Haass states that Brexit’s harmful “direction” for the British economy “cannot be disputed.” Actually the thesis that Brexit will be economically harmful long-term is widely disputed. It is disputed by two of Margaret Thatcher’s former Treasury Ministers, Norman Lamont and Nigel Lawson; by 250 pro-Brexit UK business leaders, including the former head of HSBC; and by Wolfgang Munchau, president of the respected Eurointelligence ASBL company and associate editor of the pro-EU Financial Times. Brexit means that Britain, with political independence, the world’s fifth-largest economy, and its own monetary and fiscal policy, will have the ability to pursue its own interests in the WTO, and with China, India, and the United States; and it will have myriad economic opportunities in the global marketplace.
Mr. Haass does not see a problem with a European army as long as it has “interoperability” with NATO and its resources are well spent. But as former British Afghanistan commander Colonel Richard Kemp writes, “Funds will be diverted from NATO combat forces as the EU army lavishes cash on costly new command structures…. Indeed, reducing the influence of NATO and the U.S. is the aim for several EU members, especially France and Germany.”
On intelligence, Mr. Haass suggests the “problem is too much national activity and not enough pooling of effort.” But, the former head of the CIA, Michael Hayden, tells us that the European Union “is not a natural contributor to national security” and, as I noted previously, Hayden also stated that the EU actually “gets in the way” of the security services. The former head of MI6, Richard Dearlove, says the EU security institutions are “of little consequence.” Further, Dearlove explains that the most effective intelligence cooperation is bilateral (for example, UK-U.S., UK-France) and he criticizes “politicians who loosely talk about intelligence sharing” because of the serious problem of keeping secrets among the 28 EU nations.
There is little likelihood that Scotland would “opt for independence” and join the EU for several reasons. First, the Scottish nationalists have lost their majority, weakening the drive for independence. Second, the British government would not agree to another referendum. Third, the drop in oil prices means the loss of Scottish economic independence and thus any attractiveness Scotland might have for the EU (why admit another Portugal?). Fourth, Spain (worried about Catalonian secession) would block Scottish entry into the EU. In Northern Ireland the leading political figures in the dominant Unionist bloc favor Brexit and staying in the UK. Further, the Belfast Telegraph reported more Northern Irish citizens favored staying with Britain (44 percent to 29.7 percent, including 57.8 percent of the Protestant majority) than favored joining the Irish Republic.
Why the reference to the “so-called” democratic deficit, as if the EU’s lack of democratic accountability were not widely recognized? Sixteen years ago at Humboldt University, then German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer spoke of the need for a “solution to the democracy problem.” The Laeken Declaration in December 2001, asking “how we can increase democratic legitimacy?”, was partially a response by EU leaders to Fischer. The German Federal Constitutional Court in 2009 explicitly noted the “structural democratic deficit” in the “constitutional” Lisbon Treaty itself. Clearly, the EU has still not solved its democracy problem.
The democratic deficit is not surprising because it reflects the attitude of EU elites toward the nation-state. The major proponents of the EU advocate that nation-states (including democratic ones) should cede national sovereignty (hence, democratic sovereignty) to supranational institutions such as, for example, the International Criminal Court (ICC). The EU’s promotion of supranational authority over democratic self-government has inevitably led to tension with the United States over the ICC, the holding of captured terrorists, and drone warfare—and with Israel when the Jewish state exercises its democratic sovereignty in matters of self-defense. For some European officials the European Union is seen as a counterweight to American influence.
An “ever closer union” is not the best future for European cooperation. As Michael Gove has argued a Brexit would strengthen those forces in Europe who favor a reformed European entity committed to the Transatlantic alliance and based on democratic self-government and, therefore, consist with American strategic interests.