THE peevishness of the campaigning has obscured the importance of what is at stake. A vote to quit the European Union on June 23rd, which polls say is a growing possibility, would do grave and lasting harm to the politics and economy of Britain. The loss of one of the EU’s biggest members would gouge a deep wound in the rest of Europe. And, with the likes of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen fuelling economic nationalism and xenophobia, it would mark a defeat for the liberal order that has underpinned the West’s prosperity.
That, clearly, is not the argument of the voices calling to leave. As with Eurosceptics across the EU, their story is about liberation and history. Quitting the sclerotic, undemocratic EU, the Brexiteers say, would set Britain free to reclaim its sovereign destiny as an outward-looking power. Many of these people claim the mantle of liberalism—the creed that this newspaper has long championed. They sign up to the argument that free trade leads to prosperity. They make the right noises about small government and red tape. They say that their rejection of unlimited EU migration stems not from xenophobia so much as a desire to pick people with the most to offer.
The liberal Leavers are peddling an illusion. On contact with the reality of Brexit, their plans will fall apart. If Britain leaves the EU, it is likely to end up poorer, less open and less innovative. Far from reclaiming its global outlook, it will become less influential and more parochial. And without Britain, all of Europe would be worse off.
Those who advocate leaving make much of the chance to trade more easily with the rest of the world. That, too, is uncertain. Europe has dozens of trade pacts that Britain would need to replace. It would be a smaller, weaker negotiating partner. The timetable would not be under its control, and the slow, grinding history of trade liberalisation shows that mercantilists tend to have the upper hand.
Some Britons despair of their country’s ability to affect what happens in Brussels. Yet Britain has played a decisive role in Europe—ask the French, who spent the 1960s keeping it out of the club. Competition policy, the single market and enlargement to the east were all championed by Britain, and are profoundly in its interests. So long as Britain does not run away and hide, it has every reason to think that it will continue to have a powerful influence, even over the vexed subject of immigration.
True, David Cameron, the prime minister, failed to win deep reform of Britain’s relations with the EU before the referendum. But he put himself in a weak position by asking for help at the last minute, when governments were at loggerheads over the single currency and refugees.
Some Britons see this as a reason to get out, before the doomed edifice comes tumbling down. Yet the idea that quitting would spare Britain is the greatest illusion of all. Even if Britain can leave the EU it cannot leave Europe. The lesson going back centuries is that, because Britain is affected by what happens in Europe, it needs influence there. If Germany is too powerful, Britain should work with France to counterbalance it. If France wants the EU to be less liberal, Britain should work with the Dutch and the Nordics to stop it. If the EU is prospering, Britain needs to share in the good times. If the EU is failing, it has an interest in seeing the pieces land in the right place.