Britain is sleepwalking into a crisis. Most Britons don't much care whether their country remains in the European Union or hits the road. Polls show that, among those who do care, a slim majority supports sticking with the 28-country EU, still the world's largest trading bloc. That means an existential question will be decided by the rubbery middle.
The undecided better decide soon because the in-out referendum on EU membership probably will be held in June, only a few months after Prime Minister David Cameron tries to negotiate a new EU relationship deal for Britain – a deal of some sort is expected in February. He was not exaggerating when he said, "This is perhaps the most important decision the British people will have to take at the ballot box in our lifetimes."
Which way will it go?
Impossible to say, although the refugee crisis has certainly come at the wrong time for pro-EU Britons. If Britain wants full control of its borders, it would have to leave the EU, end of story.
But refugees are not what the British exit – Brexit – debate is all about. It's all about Britain's long-term future and whether Old Blighty would be better off economically, socially and politically as a fully sovereign state instead of the northern appendage of the corrupt, decaying empire run by the regulation-mad gnomes in Brussels (as the anti-EU mob sees them).
The Britons who want out of the EU trot out a familiar argument: Britain will take back its independence without any economic cost, so voters can mark the "out" box on the ballot without fear and let the continent vanish behind the English Channel fog. As evidence, they cite Norway and Switzerland, two non-EU countries whose economies, social institutions and lifestyle are the envy of the world. For them, non-membership has apparently come at no cost; ditto, the anti-EU people argue, for Britain if it were to leave.
The argument is sheer fantasy. Norway and Switzerland were never part of the EU so they never had to negotiate their way out. Britain has been a member of the EU and its predecessor incarnations since 1973 and would have to negotiate its way out. It would be a long, tedious process larded with bad will and recriminations on both sides. As economics writer Anatole Kaletsky noted in a recent Prospect magazine article, Britain's separation from the EU would be "much more like a court-ordered divorce settlement than a co-operative and mutually beneficial business deal."
That's because the EU does not want Britain to bolt. Most EU countries value Britain's liberal, open-market trading spirit – a useful counterbalance to the insular forces cluttering the continent. Britain's membership gives the EU the credibility and global heft that it would otherwise lack.
Britain is roughly tied with France as the EU's second-biggest economy. Strong economic and population growth should allow it to surpass Germany as the top economy in about 20 years. If Britain were to leave, Germany would utterly dominate the EU, which would not sit well with Italy, Greece and the other countries that are already worried that Germany is turning the EU into its protectorate.
In other words, the Brexit negotiations could turn nasty, with the EU in no mood to do Britain any favours to ease its exodus. If Britain wanted to preserve the right of free movement of people, goods and capital with the remaining 27 EU countries – its economic backyard – it would have to negotiate a bewildering array of bilateral treaties; Switzerland is saddled with 120 of them and it is impossible to imagine that the EU would cut deals with Britain that were more lenient that those imposed on non-members. Even if Britain were to sign up for all the treaties, it would have no say in the EU's policies, from business regulations to environmental protection.
Brexit has the potential to inflict severe damage on the City of London, the term used for Britain's financial services industry. The City is the premier international banking and investment centre in good part because it has unfettered freedoms within the EU and its single market.
How could the City not suffer if Britain were to retreat from the EU? Over time, the centre of financial services gravity could shift from London to Frankfurt or Paris. If that didn't happen naturally, you can bet the EU would pass some sort of regulation to, say, repatriate euro trading. British bankers and other professions might find they would have to open offices in the EU to get EU business. Shorn of some of its European access, the City might have to downgrade its ambitions and reinvent itself as the Cayman Islands of the North Sea.
There's more. Brexit would almost certainly trigger another Scottish referendum on independence. The Scots have no interest in following Britain out the EU door and would no doubt opt for independence, tearing Britain apart. Of course, if Britain were to realize during the two-year separation process that Brexit would inflict more harm than good, it might try to reverse the process and stay put.
But backing off would be hard to do, since all EU countries would have to agree to invite Britain back into the club, and not on Britain's terms. Mr. Cameron has said a vote for Brexit would be irreversible and he's probably right. For Britain, the theory that separation from the EU would be economically neutral, at worst, is beyond absurd.