London, United Kingdom (TFC) – In 2013, British PM David Cameron pledged to hold a referendum on whether the United Kingdom would remain a member of the European Union. The United Kingdom is now set to hold this referendum by the end of 2017, although the date for the referendum has yet to be set. This issue has become a polarizing issue in Britain and beyond and currently polls indicate that British public opinion on this issue is roughly evenly split. Although it is difficult to predict the outcome of the referendum, it is apparent that it will have far-reaching implications. However, a decision by the United Kingdom to exit the EU, would have serious implications for its future viability and would likely lead to the final demise of the British Empire.
Since acceding to the EU, Britain has been rather aloof to the union and has consistently had eurosceptic tendencies. This has been expressed through Britain’s unwillingness to cede sovereignty to Brussels and their refusal to adopt the Euro as their currency. However, in recent years, euroscepticism has become much more prevalent in Britain. The rise of far-right groups with an anti-immigrant platform, like the UK Independence Party, have undoubtedly contributed to this. Furthermore, electoral gains by the far-right have put pressure on the government to either leave the EU or renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership. This has prompted David Cameron to promise a referendum on this issue by 2017, while simultaneously attempting to negotiate more favorable terms with the EU.
Those in favor of a Brexit are very happy about this turn of events and view this as an opportunity for Britain. They would claim that exiting the EU would allow Britain to enact greater controls on immigration. A Brexit would also allow Britain to regain national sovereignty as they would not be bound by decisions made in Brussels.
The costs of a Brexit, however, would be numerous and great. The first problem is that a Brexit would put the UK outside of the European Economic Community which provides, among other things, a free trade zone. As a result Britain would have to renegotiate a free trade agreement with the rest of the EU. This, however, can be difficult. Britain currently has a large and powerful financial services industry and is considered to be the financial capital of Europe. If they were to leave the European Economic Community, it is likely that other countries would vie for the opportunity to replace Britain as Europe’s main financial center. To this end, they would press for EU regulations that would favor financial companies that are based inside the borders of the union. Many EU countries like France, Italy, and Ireland have expressed support for such measures in the event of a Brexit. As a result, a Brexit would likely result in a significant weakening of the financial services sector, which contributes largely to the British economy.
A Brexit would also complicate Downing Street’s relationship with Scotland. In 2014, Scotland held a referendum over whether they wanted independence from the United Kingdom. Scotland rejected the proposal for independence with 45% in favor and 55% opposed. However since the referendum, the Scottish public has become more amenable to independence, though polls still give a slight advantage to Scotland remaining in the UK.
A Brexit, however, would likely fuel renewed calls for Scottish independence. Over 60% of Scotland wants to remain in the EU, which makes it the most pro-EU nation within the UK. This is reflected by the pro-EU platform of the Scottish National Party (SNP), which is the dominant political party in Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the SNP, has stated that if Scotland votes to remain in the EU but the rest of the UK votes for a Brexit, then Scotland should push for independence to retain their membership in the EU. If such a scenario were to occur, then there would be strong calls in Scotland for a second independence referendum.
Downing Street would have little political leverage to prevent a second Scottish independence referendum. Any attempt by Downing Street to prevent the referendum would draw accusations of hypocrisy, given their own support for a referendum to leave the EU. As a result, a Brexit could result in Scottish independence which would dismember the UK. Many British politicians, like Tony Blair, have acknowledged this possibility, though some political scientists disagree.
Scottish independence could also stir up problems in North Ireland, which saw civil strife between republican and unionist terrorist organizations into the late 1990s. This conflict, while officially over, has simmered at a low intensity since the end of the Troubles. However, Scottish independence could embolden republican terrorists, the the IRA, to resume their conflict against Britain in the hopes of achieving independence and eventually a united Ireland. While unlikely to succeed, the resulting conflict would destabilize North Ireland and could easily spillover into England and the Republic of Ireland, as it has done numerous times in the past.
A Brexit would likely result in conflict in North Ireland even if Scottish secession failed. If a Brexit occurred, border controls would have to be reestablished on the Ireland-North Ireland border. The return of border controls would be interpreted by republican terrorists as a symbol of division between Ireland and North Ireland. Since their main political objective is the reunification of Ireland, the return of border controls is likely to incite conflict. In addition, the European Union provides funding for projects that combat poverty in North Ireland. If EU support for social programs ends, many parts of North Ireland could fall into poverty, which is a known driver of conflict/terrorism.
It should be apparent that the consequences of a Brexit will likely be far reaching and dire for the UK. The scenarios that I have outlined, demonstrate the risks that the UK faces. Britain faces a dark future outside of the EU and it would likely result in a break up of what remains of the British Empire. This would also mark a sharp decline to Britain’s already waning relevance in international affairs. As a result, the UK is playing with fire by holding this referendum. With the referendum looming, my hope is that cooler heads will prevail and that they will remain in the EU.