The year 2015 was rough for the European Union. The widely covered migrant crisis, continued unemployment, and increasingly disparate visions of the future battered the continent from all sides. On June 23, 2016, the EU may be dealt the biggest blow in its history: the departure of the United Kingdom from the union by referendum, an option commonly known as “Brexit.”
Such a move would be unprecedented. Since its foundation as the “European Coal and Steel Community” in 1951, no member state has ever left the European Union. As recently as the mid-2000s, entry into the union was seen as seen as a lucrative goal. However, the European narrative has changed dramatically since the 2008 economic crash. The focus of reporting shifted to economic malaise, as member states were hit by mass unemployment. Spain’s unemployment rate remains above 20 percent, while France and Italy maintain rates above 10 percent. American economists like Nobel laureate Paul Krugman frequently heap criticism on the currency union. Since 2011, they have been vindicated as the value of the Euro currency has fallen from $1.40 to $1.09.
A few crises have hit the EU hard in recent years. First came the Greek debt crisis, as Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras threatened to default on foreign bailout loans. Greece finally submitted to Germany’s austerity demands, cementing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s place as de facto leader of the EU. Next came the migrant crisis (or refugee crisis – the terminology is itself disputed due to political implications). More than one million migrants and refugees arrived in Europe in 2015 alone, while 3,700 died on the way. Half of these were Syrians fleeing the ongoing civil war, while an additional 20 percent were Afghans. Notorious events like the Cologne sexual assaults and the drowning of a Syrian boy off the coast of Turkey have galvanized Europeans on both sides of migrant politics. Over all of this hangs the specter of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which continues to menace Eastern Europe.
The United Kingdom, which sports 5.1 percent unemployment and a higher 2015 GDP growth rate than France, Italy, or even Germany, may seem like a natural candidate for a larger role in European leadership. One might expect the nation that defied the Nazis and invented parliamentary democracy to step up as France recedes. Instead, the U.K. seems headed for the exit.
The policy arguments for and against withdrawal from the EU involve a number of issues ranging from immigration and sovereignty to trade and regulation. In light of the millions of migrants pouring into Europe, many dissatisfied Britons seek control of their nation’s borders. A very visible symbol of this is the “Calais Jungle,” the name given to the camps of the roughly 6,000 migrants who resided near the coastal city of Calais in hopes of entering the U.K. A number of countries, most notably Germany and France, have been forced to reintroduce border controls in the past few months, as the entire E.U. system of free movement seems poised to collapse. Supporters of Brexit tend to argue that the EU’s principle of free movement of people will lead to unfair competition for jobs and social services by foreign workers, while opponents believe that in normal conditions, immigration brings net economic benefits and brings the continent closer together as one society.
Sovereignty and bureaucracy are factors in the Brexit debate as well. The EU has a notoriously undemocratic bureaucracy with little accountability to the citizens of member states. As UKIP leader Nigel Farage noted in a jarring speech to the European Parliament, the British public has no idea who the President of the European Commission is, how he got his position, or how he could be removed if the voters so desired. The EU also has a nasty habit of blatantly ignoring the European public. Most notoriously, the “Eurocrats” created a de facto European constitution in the form of the Treaty of Lisbon after French and Dutch voters rejected the creation of a European constitution in referenda in 2005. Eurosceptic Britons see their nation as a world power that shouldn’t be reduced to one equal state among many – some are irked by the return of Germany as Europe’s hegemon, while many are especially incensed at the idea of asking tiny countries like Luxembourg and Slovakia for permission to make their own laws.
There is an observable trend of ever-closer union and centralization in the EU’s history, with the will of actual citizens treated as a mere obstacle to be overcome, and many Britons worry that this trend will become irreversible. Supporters of the EU counter that this is either untrue or a desirable thing – national governments retain enormous de facto power, and European integration is a positive, even beautiful, step away from tribal nationalism and towards peace, cooperation, and cosmopolitanism in the world.
In addition to a lack of accountability, the EU is frequently criticized for high levels of regulation. Some of these regulations are lauded for protecting consumers or the environment, but they also reduce Europe’s economic competitiveness at a time when that is becoming ever more important. Consumer protection is difficult to prioritize when more than 44 percent of a country’s young people are unemployed, as is currently the case in Spain, Greece, and Italy. Moreover, many of these regulations come from European courts rather than legislatures, adding to the feeling of unaccountability and out-of-touch leadership. Opponents of Brexit argue that these problems can be changed from within the system, but it remains to be seen whether the public believes them.
However, all of these arguments belie a fundamental truth: in decisions of this kind, factors such as identity, game theory, and cynical political moves often matter as much as an objective assessment of policy outcomes. A series of cynical moves brought Britain to the brink of departure. From 2010 to 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron led the Conservative Party (the Tories) in a ruling coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrats; this arrangement allowed him to use “soft eurosceptic” rhetoric in elections while hiding behind the Lib Dems’ pro-EU, pro-immigrant platform when it came to actual policymaking. In the last week of the closely contested January 2015 general election campaign, Cameron resorted to a plea for strategic voting by supporters of the right-wing nationalist U.K. Independence Party to keep the opposition Labour Party out of power, promising a straightforward in/out referendum on continued EU membership. In an outcome that shocked all pollsters and media outlets, the Tories emerged from that election with an absolute majority of seats, eliminating any need for a coalition partner – and thereby eliminating their excuse for inaction.
With his party in full control, Cameron was forced to set a date for a referendum on EU membership. At the same time, he began leading a campaign to defeat the referendum. His greatest weapon was a plan to use the prospect of Brexit to scare European leaders into giving some policy concessions to Britain, and then use that package of concessions to undercut support for Brexit, thereby addressing some eurosceptic concerns while defeating the referendum. In negotiations with continental politicians led by European Commission President Donald Tusk of Poland, Cameron was able to secure a package of concessions including an “emergency break” power to deny benefits to new workers from other EU countries, among other things. He has defended this plan extensively in the House of Commons and urged voters to reject Brexit, but newspapers that back both major parties have criticized the concessions as weak and insubstantial.
Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn continues to give vague answers about changing Europe from within, refusing to make Labour a major player in Brexit politics. As a result, the debate over Brexit has largely played out in British media as an internal Tory struggle, splitting the party down the middle. Prime Minister Cameron staunchly opposes leaving – despite the fact that he proposed the referendum in the first place. London mayor Boris Johnson, on the other hand, has come out in favor of Brexit after a period of public indecision. Johnson, a very prominent public figure, is seen as a potential successor to Cameron, and his stance is generally seen as self-interested.
The likely results of Brexit are generally not positive. Cameron has been trying to demonstrate that Brexit would be harmful to the economy, but the group of pro-EU business leaders he has produced is smaller than he was hoping it would be. Regardless, many economists believe that British departure from the EU would be damaging to both parties. February polling indicates that opponents of Brexit have a slim but consistent lead, but nothing is certain; the British public may be just fed up enough to leave, and continental Europeans may be fed up enough to let them go.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 edition of the Georgia Political Review magazine. It has been republished here.