Does the West still exist? And do we need it?
Those are questions many British citizens are asking as their country prepares for a June 23 referendum on whether Britain should remain in the European Union.
Or to put it another way, are the European institutions that America and Britain worked together to create after World War II, and that brought the continent decades of peace, still relevant? And would Britain be better off on its own?
For anyone with a historic memory dating back two decades, the question is shocking. “As little as 25 years ago, Europe was divided by the Iron Curtain, the Baltic states didn’t exist, and Margaret Thatcher was skeptical of a united Germany,” recalled the noted British historian Timothy Garton Ash. Then, astonishingly, the Iron Curtain fell and Germany united peacefully, safely embedded once and for all in a democratic Europe.
A powerful, united Europe, partnered with the United States, emerged as the premier symbol of “Western values.”
“We’ve got the Europe British prime ministers from Churchill on wanted, and now we propose to leave and pull it apart,” Garton Ash said ruefully in a phone interview from Oxford University, where he teaches. Tabloid headlines in London now scream: “Stick it to the EU!”
So what went wrong?
Of course, much has changed since the early 1990s, when some claimed that the liberal democratic model had triumphed forever. As Garton Ash points out, the West came together as “a geopolitical actor” only in the struggle against Nazism and then the Soviet Union. When the Cold War ended, so did the common threat that bound together the Western allies.
Yet the word West once connoted a community of values – democracy, the rule of law, open markets, and the possibility of a better life – to which other nations aspired. Garton Ash became famous as an author of books and articles about Eastern Europe, whose opposition leaders struggled to break out of Moscow’s grip and join the European Union.
Less than three decades later, the Brussels headquarters of the EU has become synonymous with massive bureaucracy rather than values, and many European citizens resent its myriad regulations. The 2008 crash and the EU’s mishandling of the euro crisis undermined faith in its financial institutions.
Moreover, Europe’s open internal borders have facilitated a flow of refugees – and internal EU migrants – that has become an explosive issue across the continent and in Britain. The issue is real but has been whipped up by populist parties in Europe and England – just as it has been by you-know-who in the United States.
Migration may be the issue that could drive British voters to support a “Brexit,” shorthand for a British exit from the European Union. Here is the heart of the Leave case: “If our future is in the hands of Angela Merkel (the German chancellor, who let in a million refugees), then we don’t want to be part of a suicide mission,” proclaimed Douglas Murray, associate director of London’s Henry Jackson Society, in a debate on Europe’s future at the American Jewish Committee’s national conference.
Those in the Leave campaign argue that Britain would be better off making its own trade deals, taking in fewer immigrants, and separating once again from the continent. But Garton Ash responds that the Brexiteers have vastly underestimated the costs of going it alone.
His argument goes beyond the economic costs, although they are substantial. Britain’s role as a financial hub would take a big hit, and Scotland might split with the United Kingdom to remain with Europe.
And, ironically, shutting the door to migrants may not benefit Britain, which has taken in fewer than 300 Syrian refugees; the bulk of Britain’s migrants are Europeans from countries such as Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria who enter legally under EU rules and often take jobs that Britons no longer want.
But Garton Ash makes a more critical case for Remain: The political and security gains of past decades could fall apart if Britain leaves.
“I have no doubt that Brexit would be the beginning of the end for the European Union,” he told me. Referendums in other countries would follow, promoted by anti-EU populist parties, including the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and right-wing parties in Germany and France. Their fellow isolationist Donald Trump has also expressed disdain for European institutions.
The Oxford historian wrote in the Spectator: “I cannot share the blithe ahistorical optimism that sees Europe making a smooth segue from this imperfect union to a region of freely cooperating, prosperous liberal democracies. This has been an exceptional period in modern European history, an exception whose durability is now bound up, like it or not, with that of the EU.”
If Europe falters, the negative ripple effect would reach across the Atlantic. As Garton Ash rightly notes, the great global challenges we face – from a rising China to an expansionist Russia to a traumatized Middle East to climate change – can’t be addressed without close cooperation between the United States and the European Union.
Which is why Americans should be paying close attention to the Brexit vote next week.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.