Guest Editorial: Should Britain stay or go?

Chicago Tribune
March 4
Stock image

We interrupt the U.S. presidential campaign to report a Trump-like development across the pond. Not baseball caps saying, “Make Britain Great Again.” Rather, a stunning rise in political resentment that could rock our allies in the European Union.

The issue is whether Britain should stay in the EU. Polls show a tight race as a June 23 referendum looms. British Euroskeptics think EU membership saddles their vibrant country with onerous ties to a struggling Continent. Their call to exit Europe is known as Brexit.

We won’t get carried away comparing Donald Trump’s appeal to angry American voters with Britain’s debate, but: Much as Trump criticizes trade deals and a porous border with a promise to “take our country back,” the Euroskeptics rail against the EU power structure in Brussels. Here’s Michael Gove, Britain’s secretary of state for justice, in a Facebook post: “I’ve seen hundreds of new EU rules cross my desk, none of which were requested by the U.K. Parliament, none of which I or any other British politician could alter in any way and none of which made us freer, richer or fairer.”

And here’s Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, writing in The Telegraph: “We have become so used to Nanny in Brussels that we have become infantilized, incapable of imagining an independent future. We used to run the biggest empire the world has ever seen, and with a much smaller domestic population and a relatively tiny Civil Service.” Give Trump an English accent and he’d sound similar: “We don’t win anymore,” he says, often.

The crux of Brexit: How did the country that produced the Magna Carta give away its sovereignty? Many in the United Kingdom resent the Eurocrats’ sway over everything from the size of olive oil containers to the maximum bonus amounts for bankers. Britain outside the EU would focus more on, and invest more in, its own growth. It also could control immigration. EU countries permit freedom of movement, which generally means EU citizens can live and work in the U.K., arguably taking jobs from Brits. Euroskeptics want to retake power over that right.

But is Brexiting realistic? No one can assure the U.K. economy would be stronger on the outside. Prime Minister David Cameron, who says his country should stay in the EU, negotiated a deal to lessen some EU intrusions on Britain but not enough to pre-empt the referendum.

A divorce could be messy. Britain would have to negotiate new trade agreements, and the EU wouldn’t be generous because it wants to discourage other countries from leaving. So there’s no guarantee, for example, that in exchange for economic access to Europe, Britain could close its doors to migration. More likely, Britain would have to abide by many of the same EU rules but not have a seat at the table for the rule-making.

Brexit would have global impact, which is why we have a rooting interest in a contest that’s for British voters to decide.

A British departure would take down the EU’s clout a notch, weakening a pillar of the world order that plays a role in actions such as sanctions against Russia over Ukraine. If Britain bolts, other countries may follow. Scottish nationalists might be inclined to push for another referendum on leaving Britain. It’s not hard to imagine the EU splintering as Vladimir Putin applauds. China, too.

The idea behind European unity is that countries bound together are likelier to create wealth than to start wars. This is also the broader model for global integration: Close economic and political ties don’t eliminate all risks, pain or annoyances, but they make the participating countries stronger and safer.

Being part of the EU isn’t about losing control, it’s about ensuring stature. We hope our cousins choose to Bremain.