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Eric Davis: Much is riding on Britain’s EU vote

On June 23, British voters will cast their ballots in a referendum on whether to remain in the European Union, of which Britain has been a member since 1973, or to leave. Next to the U.S. presidential election, the “Brexit” referendum is the most important election scheduled anywhere in the world this year. Its outcome will affect the global economy, and will provide a good test of the appeal of nationalist and populist politics at the ballot box.
The European Union does suffer from a democratic deficit. Voters and national parliaments often have little influence over decisions made by regulators across a wide range of policy issues. At the same time, the EU, through its single market, has made Europe more prosperous. It has also played a very important role in integrating former authoritarian states, such as Spain and Portugal, and former Soviet satellites, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, into the world of pluralist and competitive politics.
Arguments about the economic and political advantages of EU membership seem to be gaining little traction with British voters. With the polls on Brexit being closely balanced, advocates of remaining in the EU have increasingly based their strategy on the potentially dire economic consequences of leaving the union.
Businesses that depend on trade with Europe have said Brexit could result in a loss of jobs in Britain. The British Treasury has released reports trying to show that Brexit would result in a higher budget deficit, higher interest rates, and slower economic growth than remaining in the EU. International economic organizations have said that Brexit, by increasing global economic uncertainty, could make it more difficult for the United States to attain a better level of economic performance.
The proponents of Brexit have tried to rebut the government’s economic arguments, but in recent weeks their case has rested increasingly on nativist and anti-immigrant themes. They claim that, unless Britain leaves the EU, the UK will be overwhelmed with migrants from eastern European nations, who will take jobs away from Britons and place great demands on public services such as the National Health Service.
Racist and anti-Muslim overtones are not absent from the Brexit campaigners’ message. They are raising the specter of Turkey’s becoming a member of the EU “within the next five years,” followed by millions of Muslims migrating from Asia Minor to the UK. This theme has been taken up by some of the British tabloid press, in spite of the belief among nearly all experts that the moves of the Erdogan government in Turkey to suppress political competition and freedom of the press make it most unlikely that Turkey would be accepted as a member of the EU for the foreseeable future.
The Obama Administration very much wants Britain to stay in the EU, and the President said so on his recent visit to London. The U.S. believes that Britain, as our closest ally, has much more influence on global affairs as an EU member than as an independent actor. Donald Trump, who is no fan of international political and economic cooperation, has said that Britain “might be better off” outside the EU, even though such an outcome could adversely affect his own golf courses and other real estate holdings in the UK.
Many of the nationalist and populist claims made by pro-Brexit campaigners are similar to points made by Trump in the speeches at his rallies. While these sound bites may appeal to lower-middle-class voters who see free trade and global economic integration as having harmed them, they do not respond to the well-supported claims that organizations such as the EU have, on balance, resulted in a more stable and prosperous international order.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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