LONDON • British government ministers now admit that, in their desire to persuade their people to vote for the country to stay in the European Union in a referendum scheduled for June 23, they may have exaggerated the potential dangers of a British exit from Europe.
Prime Minister David Cameron's recent suggestion that a British withdrawal could result in turmoil and another European war is now regarded as particularly counterproductive, for its only outcome was to embroil the government in historic arguments which are both unprovable and theoretical and, therefore, highly unlikely to sway the electorate in one direction or another.
Still, the fact remains that a Brexit - as the possibility of a British withdrawal from Europe is now popularly called - will almost certainly unleash an uncontrollable chain reaction with catastrophic results for Europe and, ultimately, global security. For although the ballot in little over two weeks from now remains an exclusively British affair, its potentially negative consequences will be felt worldwide.
Critics of the EU may be right to dismiss the oft-repeated argument that it has "maintained peace" in Europe as largely hype, since the foundations of European security were not laid in Brussels where 46,000 bureaucrats now beaver away for the EU, but in Washington, where the United States administration decided soon after World War II to embrace Western European nations in a security guarantee which continues to this day and to offer them both the necessary initial cash and policy advice to trigger Europe's economic reconstruction.
It was Nato - the US-led military alliance founded a decade before the organisation which now claims the name of the European Union came into being - that first prodded the Europeans into cooperation, and it was Nato rather than the EU which allowed a rump West German state to emerge from the ashes of World War II, and regain its rightful place among other European nations, the critical first step in Europe's historic reconciliation. So EU critics are theoretically right in claiming that a Brexit will change none of Europe's security arrangements: Britain will remain a Nato member, and Nato remains Europe's only functional security structure.
But that's a very simplistic and barren view of how Europe actually operates. For although relations between Nato and the EU have never been easy and membership in both organisations has seldom overlapped, the two bodies are now effectively linked to each other through an invisible umbilical cord, and both need each other for survival.
Nato has the command structures, military procedures and habits of cooperation allowing Europe's national armed forces to plug into the mighty US military, which still underwrites over 70 per cent of Europe's military capabilities.
But it is the EU which smooths over political difficulties between member-states, and which upholds the relationship of mutual dependence which exists between European nations, and is so crucial to cooperation in sensitive national security matters. The idea that Nato would continue to flourish while the EU is paralysed is fanciful, a figment of the Brexiters' ill-informed imagination.
NATO, EU IN A BEAUTY CONTEST
What is almost certain to happen soon after a potential British vote to withdraw from the EU is that France and Germany will launch a new initiative for a tighter EU. The reason for their initiative would be largely psychological: for France and Germany, anything which threatens the EU threatens the entire basis of their post-war existence, and political elites in both Berlin and Paris are guaranteed to do everything within their powers to defeat such a threat. The temptation in both capitals will, therefore, be very strong to unveil new EU cooperation structures, if only in order to tell the world and other European partners that Britain's "defection" won't stop Germany and France in their tracks. And a closer defence structure for the EU is almost guaranteed to provide the first option for such a Franco-German initiative.
By sheer coincidence, a proposal for a tighter EU defence organisation is already scheduled to be discussed by EU member-states precisely one day after the British referendum takes place on June 23. If British voters decide to keep their country in the EU, British officials should be able to ensure, as they have on numerous occasions in the past, that any EU defence arrangement put in place won't duplicate the existing defence structure in Europe, and will not overshadow Nato.
But if the British referendum results in a "no" to Europe, then the argument of the French and the Germans will be precisely the reverse: that duplication of security structures by giving the EU new military responsibilities is not only inevitable, but also necessary in order to compensate for a British departure. Instructively, the battle for Europe's future will be joined less than 24 hours after the British ballot.
But the result will be precisely the irrelevant and paralysing "beauty competition" between Nato and the EU which everyone sought to avoid, as the two organisations compete to dominate the European security landscape. And the outcome is that both will emerge poorer from such a competition, with Europe as a whole being the ultimate loser.
The Americans are unlikely to be amused by this spectacle, for which they will largely blame the British. And even if Mr Donald Trump fails in his bid to be elected US president, it is quite conceivable that a Hillary Clinton White House will look upon the Germans and the French - rather than the British - as the nucleus of a new European security structure, and that even the Americans will slowly start to de-emphasise Nato as their main security link in Europe.
Either way, this will be a game which will take years during which Europe would do nothing more than gaze at its navel. And this is a game from which only Russian President Vladimir Putin will emerge a winner. For Mr Putin has devoted the past few years almost exclusively to breaking up Europe's current security structures - arrangements that he believes work against Russia's strategic interests. Much to his astonishment, he may find the Europeans doing his work for him.
FLOODGATES TO OTHER EXITS
The EU will also face a big dilemma about how to deal with a Britain which opted to leave. On the one hand, the temptation to offer Britain generous terms of cooperation after leaving the EU - such as maintaining all the existing free trade agreements and extending other facilities to the British without asking for much in return - will be great; EU leaders accept that they should minimise disruptions.
But if the EU grants Britain too many concessions, this could open the floodgates to demands from other member-states for either their own special status within the EU, or for departing from the EU altogether.
A Europewide survey conducted by YouGov, a British-based opinion pollster, indicates that ordinary people around the continent already see that as the key threat to the EU, post-Brexit. A majority of the population in every EU country polled except Finland believe it is likely more nations will choose to leave the EU in the event of a British departure.
The outcome of a Brexit, therefore, will not only be a tussle between Britain and the rest of its partners, but pressure from France and Germany to move ahead with a core of like-minded EU member-states, pressure from other European countries - particularly the new member-states from Eastern Europe - to stop the French and the Germans from moving ahead for fear of leaving others out, constant friction between the EU and Nato as to who provides security on the continent, anger from the Americans about Europeans who seem unable to sort themselves out but are still unwilling to provide for their own security, haggling with a Britain which would want to have its cake and eat it too by getting out of the EU but still insisting on retaining all the benefits, and pressure from other EU nation-states, coveting a similar status to that of Britain.
This will not necessarily lead to war, as some doomsayers are now predicting. But all of it will signify a return to an old Europe, one in which national rivalries fester, and authoritarian populists thrive. Call it what you will, but none of this is promising Europe a better future.
And, incidentally, none of this promises ordinary Brits a better life either.
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