The first question anyone should ask is why the United Kingdom (U.K.) would want to leave the EU in the first place, something that no country has ever voted on doing. Truthfully the UK has always been a half-hearted member of the EU. It has never accepted the Euro as its currency, instead using the pound sterling, and has opted out of joining the basically borderless Schengen zone. Adding in the perception that Brussels (where the EU is headquartered) is intervening in issues Britons deem as sovereign in nature, has made the idea of a referendum gain steam.
The biggest issue driving the Brexit rests with welfare benefits for migrant workers from other EU countries. The problem as Britons see it is that they are no longer able to fully control their own domestic benefits since they must work within EU rules. Essentially this means that a Slovenian worker can receive certain welfare benefits from the U.K. by nature of being a citizen of the EU. What British Prime Minister David Cameron has sought for is a four year delay for EU migrants who wish to receive in-work benefits. If Cameron’s demands are not met by the EU, then a referendum on UK membership is set to take place on June 23 of this year.
It is important to note however that not all Britons are for a union breakup.
The English are the core of British skepticism towards the EU, namely the U.K. Independence Party and the Conservatives. On the other side of the issue though, Scotland is very much in favor of remaining in the EU. In fact Scotland’s first minister said that she will “almost certainly” demand a second independence referendum if Britain leaves the EU. This coming after a 2014 Scottish bid for secession from the U.K. had failed.
This is where a potential Brexit begins to pose a problem for the United States. First off the U.K. houses nuclear-capable submarines in a Scottish naval base, and most of Scotland’s pro-independence parties oppose the base being operational. This means that the U.K. could decide to port its nuclear submarines within the US, which was an option in 2014 during the Scottish independence referendum. It also means the potential removal of a key strategic port for NATO allies near the arctic.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the U.S. often relies on Britain to promote and support its positions inside the EU. If the EU lost the UK it could mean that Germany would gain even more influence within the bloc than it already has. In turn this could lead to hostility towards Germany and leave the EU less capable and willing to act cohesively internationally. A Europe more divided means that America’s most valuable allies are more incapable at a time when their cooperation is needed most.
Furthermore, Britain is the EU’s second-largest economy. Since the mid-1980s, economic performance has been better in the UK than most of Europe, even more so in the last few years. Trade between the U.K. and the EU could potentially see a decline, and the U.S. would lose a valuable voice with cross Atlantic trade.
The good news is that moves are being made in the event the U.K. actually leaves the EU. Belgium, which is regarded as the most federalist of all EU members has been particularly active as of late. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel has stated that EU members cannot give up some fundamental values, but is ready to be “very creative” to help Britain stay in. Belgium also proposed a clause that if Britain were to leave the EU, any deal made with Britain prior to secession would cease to exist—making sure there would be no possibility of renegotiation. The idea behind these moves is to prevent other countries from seeking similar bids as the UK.
EU President Donald Tusk has said that a Brexit “would be a defeat both for the U.K. and the EU, but a geopolitical victory for those who seek to divide us”. I would also include that it puts the US in an uncomfortable position with its closest ally and its most valued region of the world.