There's more than Britain's EU membership at stake tomorrow

A Brexit vote could have dire consequences for world order, warns David Clark. 

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While it was inevitable that the EU referendum debate would become dominated by the flagship issues of immigration and the economy, it is perhaps surprising that so little attention has been given the impact of tomorrow’s decision on our foreign policy. Surveys suggest that voters care about our international influence and want the UK to remain a major force on the world stage. Brexit would profoundly affect our ability to meet those expectations in ways that have barely been considered. To put it bluntly, a decision to quit the EU would be the greatest act of geopolitical self-harm inflicted by a country on itself in the modern era.

Those campaigning for withdrawal claim that there is a world of possibilities awaiting the UK beyond Europe, but there is simply no precedent for a country managing to retain significant global power while opting to become a marginal force in its own continent. Even at the height of its pomp, the British Empire was intimately involved in the European alliance system because it understood that its own security rested, ultimately, on a benign balance of power among its nearest neighbours. On the rare occasion that it made the mistake of shunning a continental commitment, the result was a disaster for the UK and Europe alike. We ended up being drawn back in at a later date and at greater cost to life and wealth.

Today the UK has a diminished global reach and no significant territorial possessions beyond the boundaries of Europe. We have the English language, highly competitive service industries and a world-class cultural institution in the BBC. We remain an important military power, although no longer able to project force unilaterally on a large scale. We have strong ties to countries around the world through the Commonwealth and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. These are considerable global assets, yet they count for far less than our capacity to leverage the weight and influence of an entire continent as a leading member of the EU.

The main reason why we continue to be a valued ally of the United States, for example, is only partly the result of our shared outlook based on liberal internationalism and transatlantic solidarity. More important than that is the role we play as an advocate for that outlook within the decision-making institutions of a Union that encompasses twenty-eight member states, half a billion people and a sixth of global GDP. If we relinquished that role the United States would shift its priorities accordingly and we would become accustomed to seeing Air Force One pass over our heads on its way to Berlin. President Obama couldn’t have been clearer about the extent to which Brexit would reduce our diplomatic standing. What goes for Washington also goes for Beijing, New Delhi, Moscow and Brasilia. To imagine that a step away from Brussels is a step into the wider world would be a catastrophic error of national judgement.

Advocates of Brexit claim that nothing would really change because NATO, not the EU, is the cornerstone of our influence and security. This is a falsification of post-war European history and a misreading of how the modern world works. Security has an economic as well as a military component. Yes, NATO has played a crucial role in providing a framework of collective defence and deterrence, but market integration driven by Brussels has been just as important in pacifying and containing European rivalries – arguably more so. The two organisations provide separate and complementary pillars of Europe’s security architecture. To remove or weaken one of those pillars would destabilise the entire structure.

The economic dimension of foreign policy is set to become even more important in the decades ahead. The conflict in Ukraine, the civil war in Syria, rising tensions in the South China Sea and the risk of competition over the Arctic are signs that we are entering a new era of power politics. Although stronger collective defence forms a crucial part of our response, many of the instruments we are going to need are economic. They include trade agreements, market access, targeted sanctions and the enforcement of competition rules. As the world’s largest and most developed geo-economic organisation, the EU has more of these tools at its disposal than any other. It has already proved highly effective in using energy liberalisation to challenge Russia’s abuse of gas supply as a political weapon and applying economic pressure on Iran to agree a nuclear deal.

If the UK walked away from the EU, it would be surrendering one of its most important levers of foreign policy influence. An immediate consequence would be to tip the balance of power in favour of those member states prepared to lift sanctions against Russia before it has complied with the terms of the Minsk Agreement. A general weakening of the EU’s willingness to take other robust foreign policy positions would follow. Vladimir Putin knows this, which is why he devotes considerable effort to cultivating and funding Eurosceptic groups in various countries. For him and other authoritarian leaders around the world, it would be preferable to deal with a Europe too weak and politically fragmented to stand up for its values.

Brexit means giving up the UK’s voice in Europe without any compensating increase in our ability to shape world events. The EU would continue to take decisions of enormous importance to our wealth and security, but without our interests being represented at the negotiating table. We would therefore need to find other ways to influence those decisions. As a non-EU member, Norway often relies on its Nordic cousins, Sweden and Denmark, to argue its corner in Brussels. Perhaps our diplomats would be reduced to skulking in corridors hoping to catch the ear of the Irish foreign minister. Perhaps the UK would one day find itself dependent on the good will of an independent Scotland that had joined the EU. These scenarios are by no means far-fetched. What some envisage as a bold assertion of national sovereignty is more likely to end in frustration and humiliation.

We are entering a dangerous moment in world affairs as the post-Cold War settlement breaks down, emerging nations stake their claim and the rules and institutions of the international community come under unprecedented pressure. Our instinct should be to bind ourselves more closely to the countries with which we share most in common. The EU, for all its flaws, is a vital pillar of Western unity. Leaving it now would mean marginalising ourselves and undermining the ability of like-minded countries to act collectively in support of our shared interests. The stakes for tomorrow’s referendum could hardly be higher.

David Clark was Robin Cook’s special adviser at the Foreign Office 1997-2001.