Trumpism — British Style
WASHINGTON—The campaign for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union is a form of ‘Trumpism’ with British characteristics. Pro-Brexit (British exit) campaigners like Boris Johnson, the former Conservative mayor of London, and Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, are, in some ways, similar to Donald Trump, the controversial contender for nomination as Republican presidential candidate. They are flamboyant, populist, and opportunist; they never allow facts and figures to stand in their way. They loudly proclaim what they think the average voter wants to hear and resort to distortion and denigration when challenged.
Lagging median incomes, fear of immigration, disillusionment with mainstream politicians, and a surge of nationalism, especially among the lower middle class and working poor, fuel their campaigns. The Euro and migration crises play into their narrative. In the U.S., Trump has recently taken a position on Brexit commenting, “I would say [the British] are better off without [the EU], personally. But I'm not making that as a recommendation, just my feeling.”
And, indeed, why should Americans care if Britain leaves the EU? The June 23 referendum could be seen as a purely national affair of scant concern to Americans. Yet, Americans do have an interest in a Europe that is strong and united enough to counter instability in North Africa and the Middle East, an aggressive Russia and international terrorist networks, without further embroiling the U.S. in the continent’s troubles. A Europe without Britain would be less ready to use military force or economic sanctions, when necessary, less Atlantic and more Russophile. The U.S. would lose a valuable ally in the EU and a greater burden would fall on Americans for keeping the peace in and around Europe.
A British vote to leave might trigger similar demands in Sweden, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Hungary, and Poland. It would stoke separatism in Scotland, resurgent after the Scottish National Party’s electoral victories, with possible spillover effects in Catalonia and Flanders. New border controls between the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland would undermine the spirit of the Good Friday agreement, which brought peace to Ireland. Acrimonious secession negotiations with Britain would distract the EU from shoring-up the euro, coping with the refugee crisis, and tackling the Ukraine problem.
A Europe without Britain would be more protectionist on trade and investment. Anti-globalization and anti-American voices would be more influential without a British counterweight. At the same time, a post-Brexit Britain would be an irritant for Washington, constantly clamoring for special treatment and a separate bilateral agreement. President Barack Obama made clear in London in April that the U.S. would be in no hurry to conclude such an agreement with Britain.
President Obama’s outspoken advocacy of Britain remaining in Europe produced no immediate “remain” bounce in public opinion polls. But the currency markets and the bookmakers have sometimes proved more reliable indicators than phone polls. The pound strengthened after Obama’s visit and betting odds now show an implied probability of 70 percent that Britain will remain in the EU.
But many British voters are undecided and the true referendum campaign has scarcely begun. The young are more inclined than the old to support Britain remaining in the EU. However, many young people are not registered to vote or are registered in their university towns. The referendum on June 23 falls during the summer vacation, right in the middle of the European football championships and the Glastonbury pop festival, with a quarter of a million young people on the move. The government made a tactical mistake in excluding from the vote 16 and 17 year olds, as well as British citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years.
Nonetheless, recent assessments play down the importance of youth turn-out in determining the referendum outcome and the British will probably choose the status quo on June 23, more for fear of the unknown than for love of the EU. But the margin is narrow and susceptible to influence by events, emotions, rational argument, and advice from friends.
In political life, as in personal life, it is normal for friends to provide advice. President Obama was expressing American interests in London. But these interests carry weight in Britain, which prides itself on its special relationship with the U.S. and increasingly emulates the U.S. in daily life. American, Australian, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, New Zealand, and other leaders should continue to speak up for keeping Britain in Europe ahead of the referendum. This will reduce the plausibility of nebulous post-Brexit utopias and oblige British voters to think about the practical advantages of working together with other Europeans on climate change, counter terrorism and other pressing concerns. A decision to remain in the EU should lead to greater British engagement with Europe, the United States, and countries around the world on the issues that really matter.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.