The world is transfixed by Britain’s referendum Thursday over whether to stay in the European Union. Some of the most interested and anxious spectators of the “Brexit” debate are in the Baltic republics, where I recently spent a week meeting with political and military leaders as part of a delegation from the Jamestown Foundation.
For the first time since the start of Britain’s referendum fight over Europe, the polls predict “Brexit.” The four most recent national surveys put the “Leave” side ahead with margins of between one and 10 percentage points. Most people, including many disaffected Britons who want to shake up the system by backing a Brexit, understand that this would mean a political and economic shock. But they underestimate its severity.
“British citizens will be voting on June 23 on a question that will affect not just the future of Europe, but also the future of the United States, argues CFR President Richard N. Haass in the American Interest.”
An isolationist bent to British politics, what Sebastian Mallaby refers to as “little Englandism,” is not new to the British political tradition. While this perspective has long been counter-balanced by a Gladstonian internationalism, debates around Brexit have been conspicuously devoid of such idealism, speaking in a language that appeals only to pocketbooks rather than to common decency.
With the UK having voted to leave the European Union, uncertainty over the future of the bloc has intensified. Brexit supporters argue that the EU threatens sovereignty and stifles growth, while opponents counter that EU membership strengthens trade, investment, and the UK's standing in the world.
The United States is not the only place possessed by populism, and this week the results from Iowa coincided with a new lurch toward the gutter in formerly sane Britain. The country once governed by Bill Clinton-imitating centrists is now beset by its own version of Trump-Cruzery: a xenophobic nativism that would divorce Britain from Europe in defiance of ordinary good sense.
In the last year, some 39,000 migrants, mostly from North Africa, tried to make their way to the United Kingdom from the French port of Calais by boarding trucks and trains crossing the English Channel.
Despite the lack of foreign policy debate in the run-up to the UK general elections, pressing questions about the United Kingdom’s relationship with Scotland and the EU loom, says expert Richard G. Whitman.
"The biggest danger from this side of the Atlantic is that the British government will be preoccupied for the coming years with how to grant and manage greater autonomy not just in Scotland but in Wales, Northern Ireland, and England – and then further distracted by the debate over its contested relationship with Europe," argues Richard N. Haass in the Financial Times.
Responding to Prime Minister David Cameron's suggestion of confiscating the passports of British subjects fighting abroad, Ed Husain asks, "In trying to reduce the terror threat, is the government unwittingly increasing it?"
Learn more about CFR’s mission and its work over the past year in the 2016 Annual Report. The Annual Report spotlights new initiatives, high-profile events, and authoritative scholarship from CFR experts, and includes a message from CFR President Richard N. Haass. Read and download »