The Brexit referendum is a failure of political leadership - Tim Büthe

Thursday, June 23, 2016


Proponents of Brexit have made strong claims, including that it will ultimately make Britain richer and restore its liberty. But the ultimate reason for the strength of the exit camp is the near-complete failure of the British political leadership. Over the past half century, Britain's leaders have failed to embrace Europe openly and to make a case for EU membership based on something broader and deeper than a short-term utilitarian calculus.

While the leaders of the British Labour party have supported EU membership for decades, they never really confronted the old Marxist depiction of European integration as a capitalist plot.

British Conservatives similarly supported EU membership after the decline of economic preeminence and decolonization had shattered the dreams of imperial glory. But they did so as an economic necessity -- and many while holding their noses.

This is the foundation for today's claims that the EU is holding the U.K. back.

But the implied cost-benefit analysis is flawed: It ignores just how important EU membership has been for the U.K.'s ability to continue to play a global role. And it perpetuates a notion of the U.K. as an island unto itself.

Such U.K. isolationism is ill-conceived and ill-informed. The U.K. has been deeply and increasingly intertwined with the rest of Europe not just economically and politically, but also culturally and socially. If the U.K. pulls out of the EU, it will not just face potentially massive economic costs and risks, it will lose on all of these dimensions. It would also greatly diminish the ability of British preferences and ideas to influence European debates and policies at a time when the U.K. has every reason to want to do so.

Stunningly, few British political or economic leaders are making the case for EU membership in these terms.

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