On June 23, the British people, in their infinite wisdom, will vote on whether to leave the European Union — the so-called "Brexit" referendum.
President Barack Obama thinks Brexit is important enough to take a trip to the UK, right in the middle of the highly contentious referendum campaign. So what is at stake for America in the Brexit referendum?
Quite a lot, actually — but not in the ways commonly expressed. Much of the commentary around Brexit focuses on fierce debates about abstruse issues such as budgetary contributions, government benefits for foreign workers, and the future of British trade relations. But from an American perspective, such minutiae are basically irrelevant.
What's actually at stake is much bigger.
Brexit is the British manifestation of a broader popular revolt against European integration that is gradually spreading across Europe. If the British people choose to abandon the EU at this vulnerable moment, it might well be the catalyst that causes the cancer of populism and disintegration — which is helping to drive this campaign in the UK — to metastasize across Europe at a dramatically faster rate.
If that happens, the entire project of European integration — the foundation of America’s policy in Europe since World War II — could be at risk of collapsing. If that happens, the United States will find itself much more alone in the world and having to bear a much larger share to manage global problems.
European integration solved a major problem
With all the focus today on the problems in the Middle East, it's easy to forget that for most of the 20th century, Europe was the central US foreign policy problem and the source of massive wars that cost millions of lives. The solution to this problem was European integration — a heavily American project, in large part because it served US interests so well.
And, broadly speaking, it has been an enormous success. Sure, the European Union spends an absurd amount of time failing to decide things and talking about the proper curvature of bananas or the health effects of chlorine-washed chickens. But such technocratic boredom was always the goal for Europe, and it is an infinite improvement over bombing each others' cities. Europe became peaceful and prosperous, in effect a solved problem after centuries of conflict.
But this success has come under increased pressure in recent years as a series of crises — a financial crisis that threatened Europe’s common currency, a crisis with Russia that threatened Europe’s security, and now a refugee crisis and spate of terrorist attacks that threaten Europe’s open borders — has brutally exposed a fundamental and potentially fatal weakness in the system: the lack of a common European identity.
The problem goes a lot deeper than just Brexit
Brexit is in many ways just the British manifestation of the broader problem that the EU has never solved: There is a common European institution, but not a common European identity.
European integration has had enormous benefits for everyone in terms of promoting peace and economic prosperity through trade and investment. But not everyone feels those benefits in their daily lives. Integration has always been a project that has appealed most to that small stratum of elite, cosmopolitan Europeans who are comfortable ordering overpriced coffee in five different romance languages. For such people, the idea of moving seamlessly across borders, hobnobbing with foreign colleagues, and sitting at the big kids' table of global diplomacy has evident appeal.
For more rooted folk, the idea of European integration has never contained much romance even if it was making them wealthier behind the scenes. When the general public is asked to vote in referendums on policies that would increase European integration, the referendums frequently fail, even though the policies usually enjoy widespread support from the mainstream political parties. Just last week, Dutch voters overwhelmingly rejected an EU trade agreement with Ukraine, threatening the EU’s effort to integrate Ukraine into Europe in the face of Russian aggression.
These outcomes have become so common that Pierre Hassner, a French political scientist, makes the point that you can ask the Europeans anything you want in a referendum, so long as the answer you want is "no."
For all the efforts over the years to create pan-European flags and anthems, there is still no sense of a European nation. People remain stubbornly German, French, or Polish rather than European.
Why solidarity matters
This lack of a common identity matters a lot when times get tough. Responding to crises requires a strong sense of solidarity to inspire sacrifices on behalf of distant compatriots.
In the United States, we don’t really have debates about whether New York should help Michigan when the bottom drops out of manufacturing. The federal budget basically creates a transfer from New York to Michigan through unemployment benefits and other federal assistance that hardly any one notices. Our institutions reflect our common American identity, and they provide for more or less automatic solidarity among citizens of different states in tough times.
In Europe, by contrast, the question of who should pay for the financial crisis, host the refugees streaming out of the Middle East, or bear the burden of defending against Russia just as automatically creates a contentious political issue between countries. Germans yell at Greeks to work more; Poles are furious at Italians for wanting to lift sanctions on Russia. Nobody can stand the French. The whole political debate revolves around persistent national stereotypes — the Spanish are lazy, the Italians are disorganized, the Bulgarians are corrupt, etc.
Worse, European national politicians, in an effort to deflect blame, have taken to blaming the EU for all manner of unpopular policies, many of which are actually national decisions. Thus, for example, politicians across Europe blame the EU for the spending cuts and tax increases that come from austerity policies, neglecting to mention that it was the individual nations of Europe that decided on those policies.
These problems of national identity and popular discontent have long festered within the European project, but the crises of the past few years have dramatically amplified them, and popular support for European integration is at an all-time low. All across Europe, populist parties, whose core messages are anti-immigrant xenophobia and an anti-EU return to national sovereignty, are gaining strength. The people are revolting.
In the UK, that revolt has taken the form of the Brexit referendum. The European debate in the UK has its own particular national roots, of course. The UK, with its history of empire, its "special relationship" with the United States, and its physical and cultural separateness from "continental Europe," has always bridled even more than its neighbors at the idea of pooling sovereignty.
But because the debate in the UK is happening at time when the political foundations of Europe are already very weak, a Brexit now has the potential to dramatically hobble the EU. It would remove one of the EU's most powerful countries, force the EU to absorb itself in the process of divorce for many years, and set a precedent for EU withdrawal that other anti-EU populist parties would certainly follow.
As such parties achieve ever greater influence across Europe, the continued viability of the entire European integration project would be in serious jeopardy.
A disintegrating Europe would be bad for the US — and the world
The collapse of European integration could potentially mean an end to the stability, order, and prosperity that the US worked very hard and spent a lot of money to help Europe achieve. And while it's unlikely we'd see a return to anything like the 20th century's massive world wars, the consequences could still extend far beyond Europe's borders.
That's because a chaotic, unstable Europe would be unable (and probably unwilling) to help the US confront geopolitical challenges around the world, including the chaos in the Middle East and rising tensions in Asia. And the economic disruption that would likely result from the breakup of the EU would only exacerbate the problem.
The United States has long wanted Europe to step up as a geopolitical partner — taking responsibility for security problems in its own neighborhood as well as doing more to help the United States deal with geopolitical issues around the world, including in the Middle East and Asia — but has been consistently disappointed when it didn't happen.
But in recent years this had at least begun to change: Europe spearheaded the response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, contributed tens of thousands of troops to US efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and led military operations against Islamist extremists in sub-Saharan Africa.
Through the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a transatlantic economic integration effort, the United States also hopes to leverage the combined weight of the US and European economies to shape the set the future rules for international trade and investment before the Chinese do.
But if Brexit proceeds and European disintegration gathers pace, Europe will be likely useless for all of these purposes. Obsessed with its own internal problems, it will fail to take the lead in standing up to Russia, it will fail to contribute to security in Africa or the Middle East, and it will lack the coherence to negotiate trade and investment partnerships with the United States or anyone else. That means the burden of managing all these issues will once again fall on the US.
Brexit is not the source of Europe's trend of disintegration. But if it happens, it could be the beginning of the end for the most successful US foreign policy ever and a serious blow to US efforts to maintain stability and order in Europe and therefore beyond. That seems worth caring about.