Toby Melville/Reuters
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.'

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.

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

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.

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.

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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