Ramifications of "Brexit" unclear, says SF State professor

A photo of Great Britain's Parliament with a British flag waving in the foreground

SF State Assistant Professor of International Relations Scott N. Siegel says a "Brexit" will further diminish Great Britain's role on the world stage.

Should they stay or should they go? On June 23, British voters will decide in a referendum whether or not to leave the European Union (EU). The potential departure is popularly known as "Brexit," a combination of the words British and exit.

Prime Minister David Cameron promised to hold the referendum if he won the 2015 election. Ironically, some experts say the outcome may cost him his job if voters decide to leave. This marks the first such referendum in more than 40 years for the U.K.; in 1975, voters elected to stay in the EU.  

Those who want to leave the EU say that its size and level of bureaucracy limit the United Kingdom's influence and sovereignty. Those who want to remain reason that the U.K. needs to be part of a larger bloc of countries to continue to influence events, improve internal and external security and promote economic stability. 

We asked Scott N. Siegel, assistant professor of international relations at San Francisco State University, to supply context for the possible outcomes and ramifications should Brits decide to stay … or Brexit.

What will change for Great Britain and the U.S. if they decide to leave?

In general, if they do vote to leave, no one has any idea what that means. Will it mean that they forge a new type of relationship or new type of agreement with the EU? Would it mean that Britain is absolutely out of the EU? It's really, really unclear what the future relationship would be.

Militarily, if Britain leaves the EU, it will be further marginalized in international affairs. Being part of the EU strengthens an otherwise weak and insignificant voice. In the last five years, its military has decreased in terms of size, and diplomatically, it plays a minor role. This was quite clear when Russia invaded Ukraine. France and Germany led peace negotiations with Russia — Britain was not involved.

How will it affect the U.S? In terms of foreign security policy, Britain has typically been a strong voice for the United States inside of the EU. When the EU wanted to pursue a security agenda independently of the United States that was not in its interests, Britain has generally held the EU back. 

If they decide to leave, it will complicate economic relations between the United States and Britain. The U.S. would then put trade cooperation with Britain far back in the queue, behind the EU, China and India. Britain will no longer be able to invest in Europe according its rules, so London as a financial center will become less important compared to Frankfurt or Paris. The U.S. would lose a major ally within the EU when writing the rules of international finance. However, these losses are small compared to Britain's possible economic losses.    

The "Britain Stronger for Europe" campaign has raised more than 6.8 million pounds and the "Vote Leave" campaign has raised 2.6 million pounds, yet the "Vote Leave" campaign has moved ahead in the polls. Why?

It makes sense that the "remain" campaign has more money, because big business and finance very much want to stay inside the EU. Leaving the EU would generate tremendous amounts of uncertainty about what the rules would be and on what terms Britain would trade with Europe, its main trading partner. Right now, the British people can easily enter Europe without duties, without fees, without any barriers whatsoever.  

And it's not too surprising that the "leave" campaign has less money. To compensate for that, they have a lot of powerful media that can articulate their views. Recently The Sun, owned by media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, said Britain should leave. The people who want to leave are quite passionate. In contrast, the people who want to stay are less enthusiastic.

The British "leave" campaign is an expression of the kind of right-wing populism that you see here in the U.S. All of the issues that the "leave" campaign express are just British versions of "Trumpism" right down the line — in its criticism of business and unaccountable political elites, supranational and international law, the effects of globalization, immigration and multiculturalism.      

So, in some ways, money is not shaping the campaign as much because everyone knows what the issue is about and is aware of it.

Once the vote is in, what do you expect will be the most immediate ramifications?

This vote is going to be very close. Once it's decided, this issue is not going to go away on June 24. Suppose they remain in the EU — it's not as if the "leave" people will say, "OK, we're done." They will try again, and the divisiveness will continue.

It could further divide Scotland from England. If voters want to leave the EU, Scotland may say, "Our future is with Europe because we get plenty of subsidies from them." So, we may see another referendum in Scotland to break away from Great Britain as we saw in 2014.

What does this mean for the future of Great Britain?

It would play an increasingly minor role in international politics; it's not very economically powerful today. It doesn't have much besides a strong financial sector. It's only the fifth largest economy in the EU and has a smaller and smaller voice in international affairs.  

Great Britain was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. They were the world's factory for about 100 years. They had the most powerful navy in the world. "The sun never set on the British Empire," as they say. But the United States surpassed Britain militarily and economically by 1920, Japan and Germany passed them by around 1965, and China in 1995. For a lot of reasons, the U.K. plays a minor role in international affairs. If it leaves the EU, it will become even less important since its height in 1900.