At a mid-January conference of the British Chamber of Commerce in Berlin, a German partner of an American law firm began to list all of the laws and regulations that would have to be changed if Britain left the European Union.
As the list went on, the next speaker – Lord (David) Owen, Britain’s former foreign secretary – pulled the partner up, proclaiming that Britain’s relations with Europe could never be reduced to an inventory of laws.
Both sides in the debate over Britain’s continued membership of the E.U. appear to be increasingly overlooking the obvious logic behind this statement. Supporters of “Brexit” argue that the U.K. is being smothered by a Brussels bureaucracy that, if not throttled, will destroy the British character. As if a few hundred Brussels bureaucrats could ever stifle the British lion’s roar.
The anti-Brexit crowd is painting all sorts of doomsday scenarios, beginning with the catalogue of laws and ending somewhere south of Britain’s decline into a nation of sheep farmers. An OMFIF commentary by Jacques Lafitte and Denis MacShane on February 9 appeared to suggest that, without the benefit of E.U. membership, Britain and Europe would become increasingly isolated from one another.
As the continent continues to isolate itself from the explosive U.S. information technology sector, Britain would find a perfect role as Europe’s gateway to the digital world.
This overlooks a few facts that make the picture look more benign. Britain is on track to overtake Germany in population within a few decades, and is already the continent’s second largest economy with a worldwide financial network the rest of Europe can only dream of emulating. Add to this a language that has rapidly become the world’s common means of communication, colonial era ties to all corners of the globe, a continued sense of strategic responsibility, a world class university system and centuries-long integration into Europe’s economic life.
The commentators on February 9 appear to have forgotten that an estimated 350,000 French nationals live in the U.K. (not to mention around 274,000 Germans). European banks, investment funds and corporations have established their de facto headquarters in London, drawn not by the appeal of E.U. integration but the prospect of escaping it. They enjoy the freedom, creativity and flexible financial markets they miss at home. Rather than shrinking if Britain voted to leave, their number would probably grow even faster.
The real threat of Brexit is probably not that Britain would be isolated, but rather the creation of an offshore Europe on the shores of the wet, foggy isle. Globalization and integrated information technology networks have made national borders increasingly irrelevant.
As the continent continues to isolate itself from the explosive U.S. information technology sector, Britain would find a perfect role as Europe’s gateway to the digital world. One chuckles to think of E.U. bureaucrats attempting to block financial traffic to Britain across networks routed through Singapore or possibly Tel Aviv.
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