Henry Olsen, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, editor at Unherd.com and author of “The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism.”
British Prime Minister Theresa May has survived, but her drive for Brexit may not. That would be bad for Britain. Whatever challenges Brexit poses for the United Kingdom, they pale in comparison to those that will confront it if it remains in the European Union given the continent’s own problems.
The E.U. is in crisis. The East is becoming more populist by the day. Italy’s government has adopted a budget in contravention of E.U. guidelines, setting in motion a game of chicken that will test whether national governments within the E.U. are truly sovereign. And the E.U.’s pillars, France and Germany, are riven by political instability that will almost surely increase.
The recent protests against French President Emmanuel Macron show how tenuous the E.U.’s political stability is. His imperious manner and pro-Parisian policies have pushed the ordinary French voter close to the edge. Macron’s favorability ratings are now below 25 percent, making President Trump look like a national savior by comparison.
Macron’s massive victory in last year’s presidential election was quite deceiving. In the all-important first round, he and other backers of the status quo received only 50.4 percent of the votes; populists from the left and the right got the rest. Should the populists be able to unite, perhaps under the banner of the protesters, only a small shift in French sentiment would make France the latest, and the largest, nation to embrace populism. That would surely increase French budget deficits, raising the specter of a British-financed future bailout and decrease French support for the neo-liberal market economy that Remainers champion.
These changes would matter less to Britain if the E.U. were a genuinely democratic institution. In such a place, Britain’s relative stability and growth would accord it more influence. But the E.U. is not a functioning democracy. It was founded in 1957 primarily as a way to tie Germany and France together and prevent recurrence of the conflicts that had torn the continent apart. Sixty years later, it remains a Franco-German entente against which the majority of nations, and members of the E.U. Parliament, are powerless.
Imagine what the next decade could look like should Britain remain in the E.U. Britain’s relative economic strength has already attracted more than 2 million E.U. nationals to work within its borders. Should continental economies stagnate further, that tide would likely swell, further increasing the backlash that led to the Leave victory in the first place. Should Italy default on its debts, an increasing likelihood, Britain will likely be asked to shoulder some of the bailout’s cost. More immigration and higher taxes to fund more bailouts will not go over well with British voters.
Optimists who think that staying in would permit Britain to influence the E.U.’s policies ignore the repeated examples to the contrary. The E.U.’s rejection of the British prime minister’s plea for slight adjustments to her exit deal is merely the latest in a series of acts that show the E.U. holds Britain in contempt. The sad fact is that the E.U. looks at Britain as a cash cow whose economy sends money directly and indirectly to the other member states. It will not hesitate to milk the cow until it drops.
Britain’s future outside the E.U. would be bright even after a necessary, and perhaps painful, adjustment. Modern Britain is the child of 30 years of reform begun by Margaret Thatcher and completed by Tony Blair. Their efforts reinvigorated British entrepreneurship and optimism. Financial deregulation coupled with pro-market reforms created the London powerhouse that attracts workers from all over the globe. They aren’t coming because they crave access to the E.U.; they come because they crave access to Britain’s real asset — its people.
It’s easy to see the difference between the United Kingdom and the E.U. when you visit London and Paris, as I just recently did. Paris is beautiful but forlorn. The stores are old, the buildings are old, and spirits are downcast. London, by contrast, sparkles with the new. New buildings, new stores and the energy positively crackles from the streets. Ask any leader in Britain’s business world and they will tell you they worry about the post-Brexit future. But look in the eyes of anyone, leaders included, and you see that they will rise to that challenge with resolution rather than resignation.
Remainers think Britain’s prosperity depends on its location. Leavers think its prosperity, long-term, depends upon its character. Freed from the shackles of the E.U.’s rules and Franco-German domination, Leavers contend, British character will remain indispensable to a tired continent and create new opportunities across the globe. Seeing the French and the British up close, it’s hard to disagree.
Fear of the future is understandable. “Human nature resists change,” Ronald Reagan once wrote, “and [it] goes over backward to resist radical change.” Brexit is radical change, but Britain should nevertheless embrace it. Europe will soon become the iron weights around Britain’s ankles. It should escape now and embrace what might become its finest hour.