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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.

By Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff / October 10, 2012

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron delivers his keynote speech at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, England Oct. 10. Op-ed contributor Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff writes: 'It’s a fundamental conflict of visions between the German chancellor and the British prime minister: Angela Merkel wants more Europe, Mr. Cameron wants less.'

Toby Melville/Reuters

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The debt crisis in Europe is forcing the British to once again choose: the continent or the open sea?

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The fiercely independent British have gone both ways over the centuries, openly spurning, even warring against, the continentals while expanding their reach across the oceans. In recent history, though, they’ve been more “in” than “out” – as members of the European Union for nearly 40 years, even if they still use the pound instead of the euro currency.

It is the preservation of the euro that is now prompting “the British question” about relations with the rest of Europe. With the Euro-skeptics reigning over the public discourse in Britain and three crucial meetings of EU heads of state coming before Christmas – each summit deciding on steps toward further European integration – British Prime Minister David Cameron is now publicly hinting at a referendum on EU membership. Changes to the EU’s structure require “fresh consent” from the British people, the prime minister recently said, though he prefers a referendum on Britain's role in the EU, rather than an in-out vote.

It seems appropriate to think through the unthinkable: What if Britain actually left the EU?

These days, it’s easier than ever to understand the Euro-skeptics. To them, the 17 members of the euro zone are pushing an agenda that Britain never signed on to: Centralize power and allow EU headquarters in Brussels to sap sovereignty from London. The skeptics argue that Britain would not be leaving the European Union; the European Union is leaving Britain.

In 1973, the United Kingdom signed up for the EU in order to become part of a single economic market. Now, über-integrationists such as Germany, while delaying completion of the single market, push for all sorts of pooled power that proud English sovereignists believe they must resist. It’s a fundamental conflict of visions between the German chancellor and the British prime minister: Angela Merkel wants more Europe, Mr. Cameron wants less.

Even the Euro-skeptics show some understanding for Ms. Merkel, though. David Osborne, finance minister, identifies the “remorseless logic” of an ill-conceived currency zone without fiscal coordination as the key driver. It’s “integrate or perish” for the euro zone. This dictate makes it increasingly hard for the euro zone to hit the brake while the Brits mull further integration, even while it is increasingly hard for Britain to stay halfway in. As the euro zone builds up institutions to govern its currency and rein in debt, Britain will be ever more marginalized.

Some already envision a time when Britain will be freed from the shackles of European enslavement. The country, they assume, will celebrate its newfound liberty and go global alone. Yes, they admit, Britain will be less influential in Europe, but not in the world. No longer held back by the greying, over-regulated, sclerotic, and irrelevant continent, Britain could go its merry way, happily trading with India, China, Brazil, and the other giants of tomorrow.

In the most unassuming version of a new British strategy (as discussed within Cameron’s Conservative Party) the country would secure a free trade agreement with the EU and turn itself into a bigger “Switzerland with nukes,” as one approving Conservative member of Parliament put it.

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