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Bidding farewell to disappointed friends

Bidding farewell to disappointed friends

Act of betrayal and leap into the unknown

by Laurens Jan Brinkhorst in The Hague

Mon 14 Mar 2016

Many people in the ‘leave’ camp will never understand that the UK has become a well-respected, but medium-sized European country, dependent for much of its future on close alliance with its continental friends. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, by his belated conversion to the ‘Brexit’ camp, has committed an unforgivable act of betrayal to his country, to the City of London and to his many admirers.

Johnson of all people should know that shared sovereignty in Europe is much more relevant than the theoretical sovereignty of an island country. His cosmopolitan air veils an anarcho-conservative whose desire for self-aggrandisement may reverberate against him. His only chance now is to become the prime minister of a Disunited Kingdom after the departure of the Scots, the Northern Irish and the Welsh.

Ahead of the 23 June vote, all Britain’s friends inside and outside the EU have appealed to let reason prevail. America, Britain’s oldest ally in times of war and peace, has pleaded for the UK to stay in. Leading Commonwealth countries like Canada and Australia have made their voice clear. For a country like the Netherlands, Britain’s continued membership is essential for reasons of European culture, history, economics and balance of power. We all emphasise one seminal fact: the UK is a more important player inside the EU than outside.

All this matters because Europe is confronted with enormous challenges around its borders. The refugee crisis is at its height. We are surrounded by a ‘circle of evil’. An undeclared war simmers in Ukraine. The Crimean peninsula has been annexed by a Russian usurper. The Middle East is in flames. Libya, in the south, is a hotbed of terrorists and jihadists.

Against this background, the threat of a British departure might appear a secondary matter, but it is not. At this critical juncture, Britain’s continental friends would prefer not to have an ally and an important member of the EU tearing itself apart.

It does not have to end like this. Europe’s leaders during the last months have spent many precious hours trying to accommodate Prime Minister David Cameron’s wishes to confirm British ‘special status’ within the EU. The outcome was honourable, though not spectacular. More could not have been expected.

Unfortunately, a succession of British leaders has lacked the political courage to tell their compatriots the truth. Back in the 1960s the politicians never explained European Community membership as a fundamental political choice for the future, but only as an economic necessity: joining a ‘common market’. All this has led to a continued ‘mismatch between political judgement and eventual, irresistible fact’, as Hugo Young observed in his masterful This Blessed Plot.

For many years Britain has been suffering from post-imperial depression. It is no longer the world power of a century ago. Nostalgia for a past that no longer exists breeds myopia, a tendency to look inwards, and an outdated sense of superiority. In reality, Britain must decide whether it can help determine that Europe as a whole remains a powerhouse of ideas and civilised behaviour, as well as a relevant political and economic factor in an age of new world powers.

Let there be no misunderstanding: Brexit would spell Britain’s full departure from all the EU’s institutions. This would mean no participation in the European Council and Council of Ministers, where all important European decisions are taken. No presence in the European Commission to check others’ observance of European obligation. No British voice in the European parliament. No judges in the Court of Justice to protect the rule of law.

Britain’s fate will be splendid isolation from its disappointed friends – and a leap into the unknown.

Laurens Jan Brinkhorst is a former Minister of Economic Affairs of the Netherlands and a member of OMFIF's Advisory Board. This is No.11 in the series.

OMFIF's series on the UK EU referendum presents a wide variety of perspectives from Britain and around the world ahead of the 23 June poll. We will be assuring a healthy balance between many different points of view, in line with OMFIF’s overall neutral stance on the issue.

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