Tomass Pildegovičs is a first-year International Relations student from Riga, Latvia.
*This is a modified version of the article, ‘The Brexit Dilemma: A Baltic Perspective’ By Tomass Pildegovičs, originally published by the Latvian Institute of International Affairs on January 20, 2016.
From the moment he secured a victory in parliamentary elections last May, Prime Minister David Cameron has been a vocal proponent of a referendum on the United Kingdom’s secession from the European Union, otherwise referred to as the “Brexit”.  After a thorny renegotiation process lasting many months, the upcoming British referendum has started to dominate the European political agenda. The reformed membership presented by Mr. Cameron has come under a great deal of scrutiny domestically, particularly in regard to promises of liberating UK business from “EU red tape and political interference” and reinforcing the position of those EU member states that are not part of the Eurozone.  Further demands expressed by the British Prime Minister included the strengthening of oversight by national parliaments, restrictions on subsidies, tax credits, and child benefits for EU migrants as well as an end to the assumption of “ever closer union.”  In fact, as part of the recent renegotiation process that finished in February, Mr. Cameron visited 18 European capitals, a modus operandi unmatched in activity by any of his predecessors in recent history.  With the date of the referendum getting ever closer, the public discussion of the issue has reached a fever pitch, with prominent political figures drumming up support for both camps. It is evident that when the people of the United Kingdom go to polling stations this June, they will be making a decision of tremendous magnitude, not only for the UK, but for all of Europe.
From an EU perspective, a Brexit would mark a fundamental challenge to the integrity and future prospects of the Union. In 2014, the United Kingdom accounted for 12.6% of the population and 16% of the GDP of the EU, the second most of any individual member state.  The UK has arguably the greatest political clout and military capacity of any EU member state, thus enabling the EU to play an active role in shaping the international political agenda. For most EU member states, the EU serves as an instrument for addressing the challenges posed by globalization and consolidating the advantageous position and relative affluence of Europe on the global stage. In the case of UK secession, the EU would lose a permanent member of the UN Security Council as well as one of the most influential actors in the IMF, the World Bank, the G8, the G20, the OECD, IEA, the UNFCC and the FSB.  Hence, the EU’s ability to influence the international political discourse would decline substantially, enabling actors such as the United States and Russia to exert a greater sway over European affairs. Moreover, a Brexit would directly contribute to a reduction of the gravitational pull exerted by the EU, which is particularly important in the context of its Eastern Partnership policy. It is critical that the EU retains one of the greatest advocates of an active effort to strengthen links with the eastern neighborhood, which includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Belarus. Should the UK leave, countries such as Ukraine and Moldova would be less incentivized and driven to proceed with the rigorous reform programs demanded by the EU. Therefore, UK secession would enable further Russian encroachment upon the nations of the eastern neighborhood.
Furthermore, there is a fundamental ideological divergence between the UK and the other leading EU stakeholders, most notably France and Germany. Whereas France and Germany continue to espouse a vision of a united greater Europe, the UK seeks to disentangle itself from a range of European commitments. For example, whilst Eastern European member states continue to demonstrate support for increased integration in the form of the Eurozone, British support for the Euro is at the paltry benchmark of 20%, with an overwhelming 70% against the idea of UK membership in a European economic and monetary union with a single currency.  Evidently, the UK and the continental member states have dissimilar if not different visions of what the EU should represent.
Nevertheless, a divergence in vision does not have to be irreconcilable to the point of divorce. From the French and German point of view, increased integration must remain a voluntary political enterprise, which cannot be imposed upon a member state. The EU must be pliant enough to be accommodating of different speeds at which member states pursue their Europeanization policy. Naturally, the historical and geopolitical context has galvanized certain member countries, most notably the Baltic States, to be more proactive on the matter, in order to consolidate an increasingly important position in the European fabric. Yet the historical distinctiveness of the United Kingdom must similarly be recognized, accepting its desire to maintain a distance on a range of issues that are politically negotiable. For example, the past decade has shown that it is not essential that all EU member states join the Eurozone, with countries such as Sweden, Poland and the UK experiencing economic growth while partaking in the integral mechanisms of the union. Also, there is clearly enough room for compromise on the issue of welfare benefits and tax credits for migrants. There are viable alternatives for easing the burden borne by the generous UK welfare system without violating fundamental EU principles. For example, current EU law already allows for differential treatment of unemployed migrants, as they do not contribute to the economy of the host nation via taxation.  The recent renegotiation process demonstrated great potential for cooperation between the parties. The most pressing of Mr. Cameron’s demands were accommodated, whilst maintaining a red line in regard to the very pillar of the EU- the freedom to work and live anywhere in the European Union. It would be politically dangerous if member states resorted to constructing barriers within the EU, and countries with fluid workforces, like Poland and the Baltic States, would be victimized the most. Although the skepticism and resentment of the British people has not fully dissipated despite Mr. Cameron’s deal, it is essential to the sustainability of the union that renegotiating UK membership does not include curbing basic freedoms granted by the EU. The abandonment of fundamental EU principles would foster political divisiveness and perhaps spawn referendums on secession in other member states.
In light of the altered security landscape in Eastern Europe, it is evident that the actor standing to benefit the most from a Brexit would be Russia. Reeling from the impact of economic sanctions of the West, Russia has suffered a considerable loss of stature internationally. Additional factors such as the dropping price of oil and the plummeting value of the Russian ruble present acute threats to the stranglehold that President Vladimir Putin has on political capital in Russia. Henceforth, a range of domestic and international issues has forced Mr. Putin’s hand and led to a costly gamble in Syria with the intent of regaining an international platform by force. However, another political instrument at Russia’s disposal is internal EU fragmentation, largely along north-south and east-west lines. The Kremlin has a number of allies in European politics, most notably far-right parties such as France’s National Front, Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary, and Ataka in Bulgaria.  Each of these parties, in addition to benefiting from Russian funding and enjoying rising popularity, employ a vehement anti-EU rhetoric. There is already a significant level of friction within the EU; ergo, a Brexit would only further exacerbate the existing fault lines. While the European Union is not a military organization, it acts as a coalescent and unifying European framework. Hence, EU fragmentation would not bode well for the continent’s ability to withstand a major geopolitical crisis, such as Moscow’s continued violations of international law in Ukraine. In the current geopolitical context, a Brexit would be detrimental to the European security landscape.
Albeit not cataclysmic in itself, UK secession from the EU would establish a dangerous precedent, challenging the very principles and ideological foundation of the Union. Despite the adversity faced by the EU in the recent past, the promise of a united Europe has never been more important. It is a promise that the United Kingdom must continue to subscribe to because the future of Europe is at stake.
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