Leaving Europe could be Britain's biggest diplomatic disaster since losing Americaby Anatole Kaletsky / November 12, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
Ask any divorced couple whether their relationship would have been different had they never married. Actually, don’t bother asking, since the answer is obvious. Strangely, most Conservative politicians do not seem to understand this—and neither do 48 per cent of British voters. That is the number, according to recent opinion polls, who want a divorce from the European Union.
Many of these voters seem to consider British exit (or Brexit) a cost-free option that would produce a new relationship similar to, but better than, the EU’s deals with Switzerland and Norway, the only significant countries in western Europe that have never joined the EU. To be fair, not all of the politicians and ordinary voters who want Brexit are naive enough to think that it would carry no economic costs. Some anti-European zealots find the EU marriage so oppressive that they would accept big economic sacrifices to escape from what they see as marital abuse. But such absolutist Europhobes, for whom lower living standards and large-scale job losses seem a price worth paying for liberation from Brussels, are very rare.
Europe is identified as the top issue facing Britain by just 1 per cent of voters and among the most important by 8 per cent according to recent Ipsos MORI polling. This suggests that, if faced with serious economic costs, there would not be remotely enough unconditional nationalists to win a referendum—or even to dominate a Tory conference, once it was recognised that Brexit would precipitate a second Scottish referendum, and therefore the destruction of the very United Kingdom for which voters were being asked to jeopardise their economic well being.
No, Brexit will happen only if most British voters firmly believe that leaving the EU can do no harm to the economy. Yet this belief is wishful thinking—not because the EU is such a wonderful organisation, but because there is a world of difference between politely declining a marriage proposal, as Norway and Switzerland have done repeatedly since the 1970s, and acrimoniously breaking up a prosperous, if difficult, relationship that has lasted for 40 years.