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With Thursday’s fateful referendum on Europe almost upon us, the British public and political class are fiercely and obsessively debating the practical implications of leaving the EU. The fatal shooting of Jo Cox, the British MP, led to a temporary suspension of the campaign but polls suggest voting intentions are finely balanced, with many still undecided.
Viewed from across the Atlantic, the focus of debate on sovereignty, jobs, borders and relative financial contributions to the bloc is entirely understandable. But it is also narrow and shortsighted in ways that put America’s own interests at risk.
That is why President Barack Obama, other US officials, former US Treasury secretaries, leading executives such as Michael Bloomberg and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, and numerous financial and foreign affairs experts have felt it necessary to publicly warn of the consequences of Brexit from the point of view of Britain’s most important partner.
It is obviously appropriate for British voters to think first and foremost about issues of national sovereignty and economics when they head to the polls. But it is equally appropriate for the US, with such a big stake in the outcome, to express its views on the impact Brexit would have on its relations with the UK and EU. In that sense, Mr Obama’s warning that Britain would go to “the back of the queue” in future trade negotiations was not a threat but a mere statement of fact. It is a valuable piece of information that British voters — some of whom are being told that their country could negotiate a national trade deal as advantageous as one negotiated by the entire European market — deserve to have.
America’s main concern about Brexit is in fact not so much its effect on Britain — that really is for British voters to worry about — but its impact on the rest of Europe and beyond. As Mr Obama argued in London, in an increasingly dangerous and unstable world the US needs a strong, open, active, transparent, inclusive and Atlanticist EU. And an EU with Britain included will simply have more of those characteristics than an EU without it. As the US looks for like-minded partners on issues ranging from terrorism to climate change to instability in the Middle East, the last thing it needs is an inward-looking, unravelling EU trying to figure out how it works and what it stands for in the wake of a British withdrawal.
The referendum is not just a vote about Britain’s relationship with Europe but a vote about the very concept of Europe itself. After nearly 60 years of efforts to build a political community out of the ashes of second world war, a British vote to become the first member state to leave the European Union would have unpredictable consequences. June 23 2016 could come to be seen as the day when the forces of disintegration prevailed over community, and no one knows where this would lead.
The unravelling of Europe would not be automatic or immediate, but Brexit would have knock-on effects that would be hard to contain over time. A success for the Leave campaign would be wildly cheered by Marine Le Pen and her xenophobic National Front in France, by Austria’s newly powerful Freedom party, by the Dutch Freedom party that helped block the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine, and by similar movements across eastern Europe and Scandinavia — to say nothing of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Anti-EU movements in other “net contributor” countries would also make the case that they, like the British, should stop subsidising others, further undermining the commitment to solidarity across the continent.
The EU’s disintegration would not necessarily be limited to states. If Britain left the EU, the Scots — who only narrowly voted to remain in the United Kingdom last year — would almost certainly demand, and secure, another referendum of their own, which they would probably use to leave the UK. And once that process started, who could say that the Flemish or Catalans should be denied the same status?
It may seem like a lot to ask the average British voter — legitimately worried about sovereignty, EU bureaucracy and equity — to take American or global interests into account, or to cast a vote on the basis of such intangibles as solidarity, co-operation and integration. And it is fair enough for that voter to deny responsibility for an entire continent or vague notions of world order when narrower concerns such as net contributions or tariffs are easier to calculate. But such risks are real, and Britain’s friends have the right and duty to point them out.
Britain’s vote on EU membership is the single greatest factor that will determine whether Europe will maintain its postwar commitment to peaceful integration — which has led to the longest period of peace and prosperity the continent has ever seen — or whether the forces of fragmentation, nationalism and division will prevail. That’s why the stakes are so important, not just for the British but for the rest of us as well.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former US assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs