Dear Britain, We're sitting here on the other side of the pond, and we're scratching our heads. We hadn't been paying much attention to the Brexit debate until now, because we figured you'd never go through with it. Everyone knows what happens to Humpty Dumpty when he falls off the wall, so we weren't betting on you giving him a shove. Only now it looks like you might.
Which leaves us with one question: Why?
We think we understand why you're considering this. Given our own history, we can sympathize with many of the sentiments driving the "Leave" campaign. We were, after all, the first dominion in the British Empire, the first to get self-government, and the dominion that pushed the most for ever greater autonomy. Though we retain powerful cultural and historical ties to Britain – our law is a sapling from your tree; our parliament claims yours as its mother – after decades of steps toward independence, our relationship is no longer colonial. We have grown into two legally distinct states, allied but apart.
There are rules made in Brussels that apply in London, but no rules made in London that apply to Canada. So we get how that chafes. We get the part about wanting to be independent. Because, although we left the empire, we never joined that big federation of states to our south. You probably don't remember this but, two centuries ago, you and we fought a war against them, to keep this place from becoming one of the constituent states of that place. Two centuries on, we still haven't joined the U.S.
The Leave campaign is all about wanting to "Take Control," as their slogan puts it. Freedom? Autonomy? Deciding for yourselves? We can't really argue with the rhetoric or the emotions behind it.
But here's the thing: You've got a good deal going with the EU. This is a club that every country in the region wants to join. Not only are you a member, but all sorts of unique arrangements have been made so that your membership is like no one else's. You are in the club, you sit on the executive – and yet you've been given special dispensation when it comes to club rules that bother you. You get to have your EU cake and eat your Independent Britain cake, too.
Britain has negotiated its way to being partly in the club, and partly out. Eurosceptics agree with that idea; they just want more "out," while keeping key "ins," like free trade. But Britain already has the three best things it should want from a deal with the EU: You're in the common market, you keep your border and you get your pound.
Britain is not part of the Schengen zone of borderless movement – there are still very real borders between it and the continent. Britain is not part of the euro – a wise decision that means Britain maintain its own currency, its own central bank and its own monetary policy, tailored to its own economic conditions. And yet Britain enjoys full trading access to the EU in a common market of 28 countries and more than half a billion people.
The EU structure is such that it's difficult to be in the club without getting roped into all of the increasingly centralizing constitutional, legal and economic structures that "The European Project" involves. The idea of ever greater political union, which historical imperatives in France and Germany implanted into the DNA of the EU, is not something that Britain has ever clamoured for. Continental elites dream of something – an ever-more united Europe – that was always the British elite's nightmare.
But give a half-century of British statesmen and stateswomen credit: They negotiated well. They recognized that realpolitik in the 21st century would call for different approaches and conclusions than it did in the 19th. They saw that Britain had to be in a united Europe, the better to defend its interests. That's how Britain ended up achieving the near-impossible and highly advantageous position of being partly in and partly out.
The EU is a prix fixe restaurant, but the UK has managed to convince its partners to let it order à la carte, repeatedly.
If the Leave campaign wins, that carefully negotiated balancing act ends. Humpty Dumpty gets shoved to one side of the wall or the other, and there are no steps down.
Britain runs the risk of being given the Greek treatment by Europe. In fact, it is a near certainty. The EU did not meet Greece's threats of debt default and exit from the eurozone with an outpouring of affection and generosity. The Greeks had a strong moral and economic claim, and it mattered not a whit. Instead, the eurozone's leaders essentially promised to destroy the Greek economy and banking system unless Athens toed the line.
European politicians who still believe in the EU understand that, in the event of Brexit, the UK will have to be punished severely in order to prevent other countries and voters from getting the idea that they too can leave, or renegotiate, or start ordering from the à la carte menu. Post-Brexit British politicians will be trying to make peace with Eurocrats who have an interest in going to war.
Brexit also threatens to set dominos falling. Two years ago, a Scot voting for independence from the UK was making an emotional choice, not a logical one. Scotland currently enjoys membership in both the UK and the EU, and anyone who voted in 2014 to leave the former was voting to at least temporarily leave the latter. But Brexit means Scotland would be dragged out of the EU by the UK. Voting to bolt from the latter would be a way to stay in the former.
We know Britain's heart really isn't in the EU, but it doesn't have to be. On June 23, look to your interests, and to the stability of your own country. From where we sit, they appear to be better protected inside a Europe where Britain has already carved out a unique arrangement.