Britain will Live to Regret Leaving the E.U.

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To those cheering the British people’s vote to leave the European Union, claiming that the body is a proven “failure,” I have only one question: a failure compared to what?

The Europe of the Holy Roman Empire, whose demise came about with a bloody, eponymous war lasting 30 years? The Europe of the Napoleonic Empire, which dominated most of the continent in the early 19th century only to collapse as a result of a bloody struggle with Tsarist Russia? The Europe of Adolf Hitler, whose genocidal rapaciousness sparked the most destructive conflict in human history?

Or maybe British Europhobes — and their conservative American cheerleaders, rooting along the demise of the European project from the safe confines of Washington, D.C. — have in mind the Europe of the Cold War, when half the continent was occupied by the Soviet Red Army?

Until the 1952 founding of the European Coal and Steel Community, precursor to today’s much-reviled E.U., the history of the European continent was one of misery, oppression and warfare. In contrast to every other political arrangement Europeans have mustered for themselves, the E.U. can hardly be judged a failure. On the contrary, it has been a resounding success — ushering in an unparalleled era of peace and prosperity.

With its choice to leave the Union, termed “Brexit,” Great Britain has now decided to take a plunge into the abyss. Like radical revolutionaries with no deference for the lessons of history — an odd pose for self-professed conservatives — they seem to think they will devise a new political and economic order abjuring the mistakes of the past.

As the first member state to choose departure from the multilateral organization of 28 states, Britain’s decision will have disintegrating ripple effects not only across Europe and the world, but within the United Kingdom itself. Not for long will this great and glorious Kingdom remain united.

Scotland, which held its own, unsuccessful independence referendum in 2014, will be the first to go. The Scottish are overwhelmingly pro-European, as demonstrated by their 62% to 38% vote in favor of the Remain side. Two years ago, many Scots voted to stay in Britain because they feared the prospect of an independent Scotland outside the E.U. With the U.K. now on its way out, many Scottish voters, rightly, feel deceived, and another independence ballot cannot be far off.

Britain’s departure from the E.U. could also have devastating effects in Northern Ireland, where a centuries-old sectarian conflict was largely put to rest two decades ago with the Good Friday accords. Irish nationalists, fearful that connections with Ireland will be downgraded as a result of the U.K. leaving the supranational body, are raising the alarm and demanding a vote to join the Republic. A month before this week’s referendum, the British home secretary raised the terrorism threat level in Northern Ireland from moderate to severe, and we can expect a worsening relationship between Catholics and Protestants as a result of the Brexit side’s victory.

An E.U. without Britain is also more prone to appease Russia, which today poses a greater threat to European security than at any point since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Soon to be a body dominated by France and Germany, where voices demanding accommodation with a revanchist Moscow grow louder every day, the E.U. is increasingly likely to lift sanctions on Russia regardless of its behavior in Ukraine. Indeed, if there is one world leader of whose reaction to Brexit we can be confident, it is Vladimir Putin, unquestionably delighted that the largest military power in Europe, and its strongest proponent of democratic freedom in Europe’s east, has decided to call it quits.

Brexit campaigners say they’ve had enough of an economically stagnant Europe, where populist parties of the far right and far left are on the rise, growth stubbornly remains at zero, and the greatest migrant crisis since the post-World War II expulsions of ethnic Germans imperils social cohesion. They like to think that leaving the E.U. will somehow shelter Britain from these problems.

But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from Europe’s horrific 20th century history, it’s that when Great Britain stays aloof from the continent’s affairs, it inevitably gets sucked into an even worse situation.

None of this is to say that the E.U. is perfect. Far from it. A recent Pew poll found half of citizens in 10 E.U. states view the Union unfavorably. Clearly, this is a project in need of desperate reform.

But the dream of a Europe of nation-states unbound by some form of political and economic cooperation is just that: a dangerous fantasy.

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