There are still 4 1/2 months to go before the presidential election. But there’s a vote this week that could matter as much for the world’s future as what happens here: Britain’s referendum on whether to stay in the European Union.
Unfortunately, this vote is a choice between bad and worse — and the question is: Which is which?
Not to be coy: I would vote Remain. I’d do it in full awareness that the EU is deeply dysfunctional and shows few signs of reforming. But British exit — Brexit — would probably make things worse, not just for Britain, but for Europe as a whole.
The straight economics is clear: Brexit would make Britain poorer. It wouldn’t necessarily lead to a trade war, but it would definitely hurt British trade with the rest of Europe, reducing productivity and incomes. My rough calculations, which are in line with other estimates, suggest that Britain would end up about 2 percent poorer than it would otherwise be, essentially forever. That’s a big hit.
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There’s also a harder-to-quantify risk that Brexit would undermine the city of London — Britain’s counterpart of Wall Street — which is a big source of exports and income. So the costs could be substantially bigger.
What about warnings that a Leave vote would provoke a financial crisis? That’s a fear too far. Britain isn’t Greece: It has its own currency and borrows in that currency, so it’s not at risk of a run that creates monetary chaos. In recent weeks, the odds of a Leave vote have clearly risen, but British interest rates have gone down, not up, tracking the global decline in yields.
Still, as an economic matter Brexit looks like a bad idea.
True, some Brexit advocates claim that leaving the EU would free Britain to do wonderful things — to deregulate and unleash the magic of markets, leading to explosive growth. Sorry, but that’s just voodoo wrapped in a Union Jack; it’s the same free-market fantasy that has always and everywhere proved delusional.
No, the economic case is as solid as such cases ever get. Why, then, my downbeat tone about Remain?
Part of the answer is that the impacts of Brexit would be uneven: London and southeast England would be hit hard, but Brexit would probably mean a weaker pound, which might actually help some of the old manufacturing regions of the north.
More important, however, is the sad reality of the EU that Britain might leave.
The so-called European project began more than 60 years ago, and for many years it was a tremendous force for good. It didn’t only promote trade and help economic growth; it was also a bulwark of peace and democracy in a continent with a terrible history.
But today’s EU is the land of the euro, a major mistake compounded by Germany’s insistence on turning the crisis the single currency wrought into a morality play of sins (by other people, of course) that must be paid for with crippling budget cuts. Britain had the good sense to keep its pound, but it’s not insulated from other problems of European overreach, notably the establishment of free migration without a shared government.
You can argue that the problems caused by, say, Romanians using the National Health Service are exaggerated, and that the benefits of immigration greatly outweigh these costs. But that’s a hard argument to make to a public frustrated by cuts in public services — especially when the credibility of pro-EU experts is so low.
For that is the most frustrating thing about the EU: Nobody ever seems to acknowledge or learn from mistakes. If there’s any soul-searching in Brussels or Berlin about Europe’s terrible economic performance since 2008, it’s very hard to find. And I feel some sympathy with Britons who just don’t want to be tied to a system that offers so little accountability, even if leaving is economically costly.
The question, however, is whether a British vote to leave would make anything better. It could serve as a salutary shock that finally jolts European elites out of their complacency and leads to reform. But I fear that it would actually make things worse. The EU’s failures have produced a frightening rise in reactionary, racist nationalism — but Brexit would, all too probably, empower those forces even more, both in Britain and all across the Continent.
Obviously I could be wrong about these political consequences. But it’s also possible that my despair over European reform is exaggerated. And here’s the thing: As Oxford’s Simon Wren-Lewis points out, Britain would still have the option to leave the EU someday if it votes Remain now, but Leave will be effectively irreversible. You have to be really, really sure that Europe is unfixable to support Brexit.
So I’d vote Remain. There would be no joy in that vote. But a choice must be made, and that’s where I’d come down.