British Brexiteers and their U.S. cheerleaders promised a return to Britain’s glory days once they shed the bureaucratic constraints of the European Union. Steve Bannon celebrated Brexit as a victory for far-right nationalism and called for other countries to follow. The reality of Brexit, of course, is turning out to be entirely different. The economy will shrink by 7-10 percent, consumer prices will increase, unemployment will rise, and Britain will likely have to pay the EU to leave – not the other way around. Brexit will weaken Britain, the EU, and the entire Western alliance.
The question now is whether we will throw our lot in with those who want to break up hard-won international alliances, or take a stand in favor of a closer partnership between America and Europe. It would be a disaster if the United States reacted to Brexit in a way that encouraged more countries to leave the EU or other international organizations. We should not take seven decades of European peace for granted. After centuries of never-ending warfare and two world wars, stability in Europe is a core interest of the United States. We should also not take for granted how the allure of future EU membership has kept countries on its periphery promoting positive economic and democratic reform. And Russia hawks in Washington should remember that one main goal of the Kremlin is to weaken the EU, the primary check on Putin’s hopes to restore the Soviet empire.
This is why the promise of a U.S.-Britain trade agreement, as a reward for Brexit, is such a bad idea. We have no better friend or ally on the planet than Britain. But this special relationship does not require us to jump off the same building they are. Those arguing for Britain’s hard exit from Europe claim that the United States will ride to the rescue and deliver a trade agreement that will repair the economic damage done by Brexit. Russia cheers on this talk, because they know a U.S.-Britain deal might encourage other countries to leave the EU and expect a bilateral agreement with the United States as well.
At the very least, U.S. supporters of a post-Brexit trade deal with Britain should make clear the negotiated Brexit arrangement must protect the Northern Ireland peace process. A key pillar of the Good Friday Agreement was eliminating physical barriers and security checkpoints between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Pulling the legs out from this agreement by reestablishing a hard border risks upending the delicate balance of compromises that has maintained peace for the last twenty years. Even new technological infrastructure to monitor movement could be inflammatory. Recent surveys have found extreme antipathy in Northern Ireland for any type of north-south border checks. With our large Irish-American population and uniquely close relationship with the UK, the United States played an important role shepherding the peace process and must continue to safeguard the Good Friday agreement. We should be firmly against any Brexit agreement that doesn’t include the Irish backstop or other arrangement to protect the peace process.
When the UK government held the initial Brexit referendum, Brexit promoters implied that Britain could have its cake and eat it too. They claimed that Britain would make money by no longer having to contribute to the EU; that Britain would still be able to trade on favorable terms with the rest of Europe while being free from EU regulations; and that investment would continue to flow to Britain once it scrapped EU rules that were supposedly stifling their economy. It’s now clear that none of those things are true, and that very tough choices are now required. With this picture now clear, it would be wise to allow for a new referendum.
In the United States, instead of cheering on Brexit and promising individual agreements that weaken the EU, we should be doing the opposite – binding ourselves closer to the EU and negotiating a trade agreement that establishes the U.S.-EU bloc as a dominant force. In the coming decades, the size of China’s economy and military will continue to grow. The only way to prevent China from dictating terms in a world where they have significantly more influence is to join forces with Europe to agree on global standards going forward. While the special relationship will endure, Britain’s position will be stronger from within the EU rather than outside it.
The Irish poet Oscar Wilde once said there are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. Nigel Farage, Steve Bannon, and their allies in the White House are close to getting what they want in Brexit, but the tragedy may yet be avoided.