Britain’s risky voteTo stay, or not to stay — that is the question posed to British citizens on Thursday as the rest of the European Union and much of the world looks on with nervousness about the ramifications on their economies.
If the referendum outcome favors the United Kingdom remaining in the EU bloc, the supporters will owe much to Jo Cox, a Labor Party lawmaker, mother of two and active pro-EU campaigner who was fatally stabbed and shot by an extremist crying out for freedom for Britain.
Campaigning for the so-called Brexit referendum on whether to leave or stay in the EU came to a full stop, a gesture of mourning for the death of the 41-year-old politician who advocated that Britain stay in the bloc. The latest polls since the attack show a resurgence in support of the U.K. retaining membership, but the result cannot be predicted until the ballots are counted.
Britain is at a cliff’s edge. It must decide whether to go over or back away. Hamlet’s famous monologue “To be, or not to be…” — pondering what to do about his fate — couldn’t fit the situation any better.
Britain’s exit from the EU could be suicidal in both political and economic terms. But critics argue that the move in the longer run will save and reshape Britain once it is freed from the EU’s bureaucratic meddling and restraints. They have been using the mantra “Let Britain take back control,” and it has proven to be powerful.
Nostalgia and a somewhat pompous longing for the old Great Britain — one of the great empires in history that commanded so many territories around the world that the sun never set on its domain — is the real foundation of the conservative call for the country’s break from the EU. While enjoying all the benefits of membership, Britain manages to maintain its own currency and remains outside the Schengen area, the EU’s zone of passport-free travel. It also retains policy sovereignty in security, economics, taxation, welfare, education and medical affairs.
Still, many British believe they would be better off if entirely separated from the rest of Europe. This is why critics claim Anglo-Saxon pride is at the root of the Brexit campaign.
But the world is so interconnected that no country can go it alone. The traditional concept of sovereignty is meaningless in a world increasingly turning borderless. Liberalization and free competition is what drives the global economy. Shared resources are now preferred. The EU framework has set a role model for an interconnected future. Clinging to past glory and longing for the sepia tones of photos in a scrapbook is foolish, dangerous and not just a little bit vain.
Britain still has influence in global affairs because of its EU premium. If it is outside the bloc, Britain won’t have the same presence on the global stage. It may lose its status as the closest ally of the United States. Few will pay attention to anything it says. A Brexit could also shake the mainland’s fragile bond with Scotland and Northern Ireland. Its exit will eventually make the U.K. smaller and smaller.
Moreover, the fallout from Britain’s suicidal choice won’t stop with its emerald isles. Its referendum could trigger others by other members.
A Brexit could fan nationalistic fervor led by extremists, who blame immigrants for their unhappiness and see in them nothing but terrorism threats.
The liberalization and free trade that shaped the global order since World War II would be shaken. We could see a revival of isolationism and protectionism, as seen by French National Front leader Marine Le Pen and U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who have vowed to reinforce border controls and clamp down on immigrant policies. They both support Brexit.
Despite the risks, support for separation from the EU gained ground due to disillusion and disgruntlement toward mainstream politics. People feel Prime Minister David Cameron and other government officials are overstating the danger and trying to scare them to protect their own vested interests.
Such skepticism goes deeper among the working class, who have benefited little from the fruits of globalization. They oppose staying in the bloc because the mainstream politicians whom they resent want to stay in the EU.
A recent poll of people in 28 EU member countries showed that only 23 percent approved of the EU establishment, and 43 percent showed a negative response to the bloc. People have been disappointed by the way the EU leadership coped with the fiscal and refugee crises.
Greece’s woes underscored the fundamental defects of the single-currency system. Whatever the outcome of the Brexit vote, the EU must fix its institutions and its very viability.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 21, Page 31
*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.