I sure as heck was surprised by the United Kingdom’s decision yesterday to leave the European Union (EU). Were you? And now that “Brexit” will indeed take place, what’s in store for America and the world? My crystal ball has never worked perfectly, and much of Brexit’s ultimate impact will depend on how London executes the move, and how the EU and financial markets respond. America’s reactions of course will matter as well. Here are some initial reactions.
>The unexpected Brexit verdict significantly changes the narratives about the global economy’s evolution, about the future of international trade and related economic policies, and about the fate of international political integration.
As recently as 48 hours ago, the safest bet was that British voters would behave similarly to voters elsewhere in Europe who have had the chance to change fundamental political arrangements. In September, 2014, the Scots voted to remain a part of the United Kingdom. Although Greek anti-EU sentiment runs high for reasons that are easily understandable given that country’s prolonged economic crisis, a much-feared (by those who were not hoping for it) “Grexit” vote never took place. Catalonia is still part of Spain, despite a strong separatist movement in the region – and a terrible Spanish economy. And in 2005, the French and Dutch electorates voted down a proposed new EU constitution that would have accelerated political and economic integration – chiefly by streamlining decision-making via greater powers for pan-European institutions. But the issue of departing the Union has not yet come up.
As with Scottish devolution in particular, I thought that instincts for caution would steadily overcome nationalist or ethnic (take your pick) feelings as election day approached, and that the British would ultimately reject a leap in the dark. And of course, my confidence was reinforced by my view that the UK is hardly an economic superpower, and that its prospects outside the EU objectively are iffy.
The British public’s refusal to back down – despite an unmistakable fear-mongering campaign by (now caretaker Prime Minister) David Cameron’s government and even the country’s central bank – signals that Europeans at least may be willing to shift integration into reverse, not simply keep it in place
>In that vein, one of the biggest worries of Brexit opponents entailed the possibilities of contagion – a “Leave” verdict encouraging similar EU opponents throughout the Union. And copycat Brexit votes are clearly back on the table, given widely acknowledged structural defects in the eurozone (a common currency area that includes 19 of the 28 – counting the UK – EU members, and that Britain never joined), Europe’s especially weak recent economic performance, and controversial EU decisions to admit large numbers of Middle East refugees.
Their success would be a genuinely historic, and indeed seismic, development, as Europeans themselves since the end of World War II have generally acknowledged that closer, more regularized economic ties were essential for breaking their centuries-old cycle of major conflict. It’s possible concerns about keeping Europe peaceful are overblown. For all the importance of economic integration, the main pacifier of the continent has been the American commitment to European defense embodied in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Brexit per se does nothing to change the UK’s role in the alliance.
Nevertheless, economic and security issues are never, or even often, completely separate. Therefore, particularly over the longer term, Brexit and other withdrawals from the EU could well turn Europe into a much less stable place than it’s been for the last 70 years. More uncertainty could be added to the European security scene if presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, an outspoken critic of America’s NATO policy, won the presidency.
I’ve strongly critical of continued U.S. NATO membership, too – especially of what looks to me like a possibly suicidal nuclear security guarantee. Indeed, the risks created for America by its continued NATO role convinces me that fundamental changes in the alliance’s structure are inevitable anyway, since the U.S. promise to risk its existence on Europe’s behalf has become ever less credible. If Brexit brings the EU’s dissolution, or significant weakening, closer, then Washington will face fateful NATO choices it has long tried to avoid sooner rather than later. And the foreign policy establishment’s demonization of all proposals for proactively dealing with these dilemmas has left the nation completely unprepared for their growth to critical mass.
>Economically, Brexit carries disruptive potential, too. Just look at the financial and currency markets today. But epochal political events inevitably create short-term costs; any other expectations are completely unrealistic. Especially inane have been claims on social media (e.g., by The New Yorker‘s Philip Gourevitch) over the last twelve hours that the initial turbulence touched off by Brexit proves it a failure.
Sure to be complicated greatly, however, are efforts to conclude a major trade agreement between the United States and the EU. This Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) has been a long slog anyway. But since such negotiations always entail achieving a delicate balance of interests, and since the UK is a significant part of the overall EU economy, any important compromises that have been struck in the talks would seem to be threatened.
President Obama has already concluded with eleven other countries a Pacific rim-centered trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), but it’s doubtful that Brexit will do much to dispel Congressional skepticism that has prevented Mr. Obama from formally submitting it for approval.
Keep in mind, though, that trade – including with Europe – is still a pretty minor part of the U.S. economy. The channel through which the biggest Brexit impact is likeliest to be transmitted to America is monetary policy – the province of the Federal Reserve. At the Fed’s June 15 meeting, Chair Janet Yellen made clear that the possibility of Brexit, and especially its impact on financial markets, was one factor behind the central bank’s decision to keep interest rates on hold. Until business-as-usual in the world economy resumes, don’t expect any rate hikes – good news if you believe that the U.S. desperately needs super-easy credit to sustain its current feeble recovery, and bad if you believe that prolonged near-zero rates have prevented the post-financial crisis adjustments needed to restore real health to the economy.
>In fact, such existing skepticism around these trade issues, as well as around immigration policy, makes me doubt that Brexit will have a notable effect on American politics and policy. Sure, the same kinds of economic anxieties that have fueled Trump’s campaign helped lead to victory for “Leave.” But his followers won’t be able to cast more votes for him as a result of the British decision.
Supporters of his presumptive rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton, are surely horrified by the resistance to unlimited immigration and massive refugee admissions signaled by Brexit, so they wouldn’t seem headed for the Trump camp. And it’s difficult to imagine many independent voters marking their ballots in November based on the British vote. Indeed, this poll tells us that Brexit isn’t even on the screens of most U.S. voters. Rightly or wrongly, that choice will be overwhelmingly Made in America.
One possible exception – but one that’s largely independent of Brexit: A wave of overseas terror attacks could easily heighten American anxieties about their own security, whether an Orlando or San Bernardino repeat occurs or not. Ditto for some major military success by ISIS or a similar group abroad, or an unrelated international crisis. More terrorism-related developments could favor Trump. Something like a showdown with Russia over Eastern Europe or China over the South or East China Seas could break in Clinton’s direction (due to judgment and experience considerations). In the process, these contingencies could also remind us how quickly Americans might forget all about Brexit.