While Americans have been fixated on their prolonged and this year bizarre presidential race, scant attention has been played to an alarming development across the Atlantic Ocean — the potential disintegration of the European Union.
Voters in Britain will go to the polls June 23 to decide whether to exit the EU, a movement labeled Brexit. Exiting would be a major blow to Britain and the 28-nation union that formed at the end of the 20th century.
The EU's loose politico-economic alliance that has led to common ground rules on trade, monetary policy and environmental regulation, has served as perhaps the greatest bulwark against a return of the divisions and national rivalries that led to two world wars in the prior century.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, to assuage the nationalistic elements within his Conservative Party, sought to put the calls for leaving the EU behind him by agreeing to a referendum. Cameron fully expected its rejection and he is campaigning against Brexit. But polls show Brits — frustrated by a sluggish economy, the problem of immigration from the Middle East and Northern Africa, and influenced by those contending the nation would be better going it alone — split evenly over whether to stay or go.
It is difficult to see how Brexit works well for Britain, for Europe and therefore for the West, including the United States. Removing the world's fifth-largest economy from the EU would create economic instability at a time when the global economy is shaky. Britain would still have to trade with its old union partners, but would have lost the ability to help set the rules. With the counterweight Britain and France have provided diminished, Germany's economic dominance of the EU would grow.
Brexit would diminish the ability of the continent to deal in a united fashion with issues such as the immigration crisis, economic downturns and health outbreaks. Brexit could also lead to other nations looking for their own exit.
Stability is the better option. But as with the presidential election in the United States, emotion and frustration are driving a segment of the British electorate, rather than pragmatism and a cleared-eyed view of reality.
As to who benefits globally, one only has to consider that Russia's Vladimir Putin has spoken favorably of Brexit, knowing it would weaken Europe, while President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have expressed concern. But this is a decision for Brits to make and the influence of any American administration is quite limited.
Citizens across the globe are being rocked by constant technological and economic change. These technological changes combined with the rise of global corporate networks have displaced jobs in some sectors and boosted them in others, with higher education becoming a growing necessity to compete. There are no indications of these rapid changes abating anytime soon.
This can lead to a desire to turn back, to find easy answers and ready targets. It helps explain why Donald Trump's message of cracking down on immigration and getting tough on trade finds a devoted following and why Brits are seriously considering abandoning a relatively new experiment that on balance has done far more good than harm.
Great nations should not fear free trade and movement. They should be confident in their ability to compete and dedicated to providing their citizens the educational means and opportunities to compete, while assuring the benefits of that labor accrue fairly to a strong middle class. That should be the focus, not returning to the 20th century.
– The Day (Conn.), March 6, 2016