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Opinion

What if Britain left the European Union?

Amid the debt crisis in Europe, Euro-skeptics in Britain are dominating public discourse. British Prime Minister David Cameron is publicly hinting at a referendum on membership in the European Union. But remember, Britain, if you leave the EU, it's cold out there.

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A more ambitious version sees Britain as a “hub-nation” at the center of flexible and overlapping global trade networks. It would utilize old commonwealth ties – not fasten itself to “fixed, rigid blocks” but focus on countries “with accountable government,” as journalist David Rennie describes it in a report for the London-based Center for European Reform.

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The country’s military would be turned into a smaller version of the US Marine Corps, concentrating on the Euro-Mediterranean region. British armed forces would extend globally when acting alongside the Americans. The special relationship would be rekindled.

Every country, of course, is free to wrap itself in its favorite self-delusions. Observers can be but surprised and ask questions: Why would the United States be interested in a special relationship when Britain is no longer a relevant influence in Europe? Why would the EU consider special economic and trading privileges for Britain after its “Brexit,” when the country just wants to continue on as a free rider? 

And these other questions loom: How successful can Britain be globally when it is set to fall out of the top 10 of the world economic powers? In years past, it has traded more with euro zone member Ireland than with Brazil, Russia, India, and China combined.

In late September, Radoslaw Sikorski, Poland’s conservative foreign minister, addressed the topic in a speech at Oxford University where he studied as an exile. There, Mr. Sikorski recalled how Marxists introduced him to the term “false consciousness” – an ideological contradiction. “Britain today,” said Sikorski, “is living with false consciousness. Your interests are in Europe. It’s high time for your sentiments to follow.”

Not too many Brits may want to hear a Pole try to protect them from their own slide toward self-isolation. Perhaps they will listen to the highly regarded British historian and journalist Timothy Garton Ash, who warns that it will be  “cold on Europe’s margins.”

And the rest of Europe will feel the chill as well. The continent’s horizon will be diminished, and Europe will be even less of a hard power. The continent’s Atlanticists will hardly know whom to befriend in light of a United States pivoting toward Asia and a fleeing Britain.

One day, Britain could find itself confronted with a Germany that emulates it: Overburdened by euro-stewardship and faced with a less interested Anglo-American world with which it can integrate, Europe’s central power might also be tempted go global alone – as a hub-nation in a flexible and overlapping export network, but with little regard for traditional alliances. Drawn to pacifism and neutralism it would become a high-tech wingman to the rising nations.

Is this the new Europe that Britain, in its desire to get away, wants to help create?

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff is a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States where he leads the EuroFuture Project.

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