Brexit will not solve the UK’s identity crisis


Picture of Joaquín Almunia
Joaquín Almunia

Visiting Professor at PSIA-Sciences Po Paris, former vice-president of the European Commission and Trustee of Friends of Europe

Joaquín Almunia is Former European Commissioner for economic affairs (2004-2010) and competition policy (2010-2014) and a Trustee of Friends of Europe

Let me start with a declaration of my principles. I hope the referendum to be held on the 23 June will maintain the UK’s membership in the EU. I would have preferred other ways for David Cameron to deal with the eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party, but at this point what matters is to make a positive result possible; that is to say a victory of the ‘remain’ side.

As an admirer of Britain and, at the same time, strong supporter of European integration, I am deeply concerned about the risks of Brexit. I accept that this campaign belongs to those who will participate in the vote, and that they have to take the responsibilities. But this should not prevent any of us outside Britain from expressing, respectfully, the way we see the consequences of their decision, not only for them but also for the rest of Europe’s citizens.

Leaving the EU, Britain will neither be an important and influential voice in the EU nor a relevant player vis-à-vis the rest of the world. From the US, their closest ally, many voices including President Barack Obama continue to remind them of this. The negative economic consequences of Brexit, in particular but not limited to the City of London, are confirmed by most academic studies and analyses recently carried out. Trade and regulatory barriers between the UK and the EU single market will re-emerge, regardless of the alternative model chosen to define EU-UK relations going forward – the Norwegian model, the Swiss model, a bilateral FTA and so on. It’s easy to imagine negative impacts coming from the difficult negotiations between Brussels and London on investors and other economic agents, whose importance for the future of a stand-alone British economy cannot be underestimated. Last but not least, Brexit will increase the probability of a new initiative to promote Scottish independence.

The negative economic consequences of Brexit are confirmed by most academic studies

But what if the ‘remain’ vote succeeds, and Brexit is avoided? The UK has always been a unique case within the EU. No other member state was allowed so many opt-outs or special treatments. It’s true that the conditions agreed by Cameron with his European Council colleagues are not the ones many of us would have liked, because some of the points go counter to our commitment in favour of the free movement of citizens and workers within the EU, or limit the ambition of ‘ever closer union’ as a common reference for the next steps in the integration project. But as we say in Spanish, ‘best is the enemy of the good’, and it is worth paying this price to engage Cameron and the British voters in favour of ‘remain’. In fact, the European Council package describes in many aspects the present situation, and the new compromises do not affect the tenets of the EU in my view.

Regardless of whether the UK stays or leaves the EU, the dilemmas about the future of British national sovereignty and identity, and of course the debates around immigration, will not disappear, and will need to be tackled by British society in any case. And public opinion will be confronted with a paradox: the UK is, and wants to be, a champion of globalisation and economic openness, but at the same time part of their public opinion seems to lean for a ‘Fortress Britain’. This inconsistency cannot last forever. The referendum on 23 June offers political leaders and all those participating in the public debate an opportunity to distinguish between arguments based on facts and rigorous analysis, and the simplistic views of populists and nostalgic supporters of a past that will not come back.

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