The Brexit referendum has damaged the West's global influence

  • National Newswatch

Perhaps Charles de Gaulle was right. Perhaps Britain never should have joined the European Union in the first place.The French president twice vetoed the United Kingdom's application to join what was then called the European Economic Community, fearing that British membership would result in undue American influence in a European organization. But more importantly, de Gaulle believed that Britain was fundamentally incompatible with the continent's integration project, due to its status as a far-flung maritime empire and its differing approach to structuring its economy.By the time that Britain was finally admitted in 1973, the organization's trajectory had already been profoundly shaped by the Franco-German axis. As a result, the UK has never felt completely at home in the EU. And now, the country is stumbling toward a referendum on EU membership that is certain to resolve nothing.Having not been conquered since 1066, having not lost a war since 1783, and having come out on the winning side of two World Wars and the Cold War, Britain has had difficulty coming to terms with its gradually declining status in the world. It has particularly had trouble stomaching the notion of Europe as a political – and not just economic – union of states, particularly one rooted in a continent that only recently managed to do away with fascism and communism.The Stronger In campaign, which is leading the Remain side of the referendum debate, has centred its arguments on the economic risks of leaving and the benefits of staying in. One gets the impression that a vote to remain is tantamount to a desire to enjoy all of the privileges of EU membership but to take on none of the responsibilities.The EU reforms negotiated by British Prime Minister David Cameron in February are likely to exacerbate Britain's problem with Europe. Included in these reforms is a promise that Britain will become exempt from the EU's “ever-closer union”, and that it will not have to take part in any further political integration. But in reality, the UK will still be bound by the sovereignty pool's political decision-making bodies.Similarly, Cameron's government has stressed the fact that Britain controls its own borders, and that an “emergency brake” will be able to be applied on in-work benefits for recently arrived immigrants in instances of “exceptional migration” to the UK. This is unlikely to deter people from seeking out the good-paying jobs that Britain has to offer, nor does it alter the long-enshrined principle of freedom of movement which allows European citizens to live and work anywhere in the EU.The result of British leaders making only a half-hearted case for Europe is that Britons may think that a vote to remain will get them one thing, but in reality it will deliver for them another. The real issues at hand – the costs of membership, the diminished size of Britain's global influence, and explaining how the EU's political institutions actually work – have been largely ignored by the Remain campaign. Rather than make an impassioned case for diversity, Remain has allowed the Brexiteers to frame the terms of the debate.A narrow vote to remain followed by the implementation of Cameron's reforms would mean a United Kingdom that is still bound by the EU's political decisions while remaining increasingly at the margins of some of the sovereignty pool's signature initiatives. Without active and conscious British leadership in Europe, the country's influence in the organization is likely to diminish. This only stands to feed further British Euroscepticism, therefore increasing the chances of a second referendum being held in the not-too-distant future.Whether it votes to remain or to leave, Britain will cause major headaches in Brussels in the years to come. Failure to bring a definitive resolution to the issue of British Euroscepticism will force Britain, Europe and the West to remain inward-looking at a time when Russia and China are becoming increasingly assertive. The West is increasingly unable to speak with a single voice, even as non-Western norms emanating from Moscow and Beijing continue to transform global geopolitics.In centuries past, continental powers derisively referred to Britain as “Perfidious Albion” due to its tendency to shed alliances in the name of realpolitik. This century, by contrast, if the UK shirks from its international obligations, today's delicate global equilibrium may be significantly undermined.Zach Paikin (@zpaikin) is a contributor to British Influence and to The Federal Trust, two London-based think tanks that explore Britain's relationship with the European Union.