The United Kingdom is leaving the European Union. Although this may sound like a bureaucratic factoid from the other side of the ocean, it is not. This historic event will have serious negative consequences for the global economy, the politics of Britain and Europe, and the geopolitical interests of the United States.
Here in Texas, we are isolated from none of these effects.
The U.K. is now set to “Brexit” the EU, a long and arduous process of legal decoupling that could take years. However, the effects of the vote are much more immediate.
First, the U.K.’s impending departure from the largest economic block in the world has rattled markets. The British Pound lost 10 percent of its value within hours of the vote, and global stock markets are down 5 to 10 percent on the news. U.S. markets are expected to fall, as well, underlining one of the economic lessons of the 2008 financial crisis: that all major crises have global implications. The uncertainty is likely to continue, which means Texas families’ investments and pension plans will probably be affected.
Second, the vote has laid bare huge tensions within the U.K. itself. Scotland — which narrowly decided against splitting from the U.K. and becoming an independent country in 2014 — voted overwhelmingly for the United Kingdom to staying in the EU on Thursday. It is certain to demand another vote for independence, given the new realities. Similarly, Northern Ireland’s Sinn Fein party has called for a vote to unify with Ireland. The breakup of the United Kingdom is no longer a fanciful prospect.
The political landscape in the U.K. is also at risk of major shifts. The U.K. Independence Party, whose major platform had been to advocate for leaving the EU, has achieved its purpose. It will now have to retool itself with a different message, most likely doubling down on its more caustic anti-immigrant stance.
Prime Minister David Cameron is likely to be replaced with former London Mayor Boris Johnson, called the “British Donald Trump,” and not only for his uncontrollable hair. None of these developments suggests a robust, reliable U.K. on the world stage.
This could be a major problem for the U.S. America has always looked to the U.K. as its most natural partner across the Atlantic. This special relationship, however, could erode if the U.K. loses its influence in Europe and turns isolationist and inward-looking.
A British government without global ambitions is unlikely to be as loyal a supporter of U.S. foreign policy as it has been in the past decades — keep in mind that after the U.S., the U.K. sustained the highest number of casualties in Afghanistan.
Finally, the impending Brexit will weaken Europe’s influence in the world. At worst, the unprecedented exit of a major member state from the EU could spark a series of similar moves across the continent. Far-right parties in France and the Netherlands have already called for this.
The U.S. should be wary of any steps that could lead to the disintegration of the EU itself, jeopardizing the peace that has reigned in Europe for so long. If nothing else, the EU has meant that no American forces have had to engage in major war on the continent in decades.
But even in the best scenario, in which a Brexit is quickly and relatively painlessly managed, the process will take at least two years. Europe will be focusing all of its energy on the legal details of the U.K.’s future relationship with the EU. It will have no capacity to deal with the truly important problems it faces: the continuing violence in Ukraine, the civil war in Syria, or the mass movement of migrants and refugees across the Mediterranean.
And whenever the EU fails to deal with important geopolitical questions such as those, it is America that has to step in.
When Europe is strong and willing to shoulder its burden, it can be a great asset to U.S. interests. When Europe turns inward and dithers, it leaves these problems to America to resolve. The Brexit vote is bound to weaken the EU as a whole — and we will all be worse off for it.
Lorinc Redei is a lecturer and graduate adviser at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. His research focus is on the European Union.
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