Brexit: the UK's isolationist fantasy
© Getty Images

It is no overstatement to say that Brexit is the biggest blow to the liberal world order that was established after World War Two. The United Kingdom, the once great empire that had a major hand in creating this order and bringing together historic foes and competitors, has snubbed the system it helped create in favor of uncertainty for itself and the world.

The “Leave” campaign claimed that the U.K. was giving away taxpayers’ money to a Union that didn’t represent them and no longer had control over the influx of immigration into the country. Yet the U.K. has most likely set itself on a path to recession, which will cost it a lot more than the total of all its EU dues, coupled with the immediate effect of the plunging value of the pound.

ADVERTISEMENT

Its large financial sector could take a massive blow in the near future with some predictions eyeing between 70,000 and 100,000 financial services jobs in the UK being lost. Not only has it imposed serious costs on itself, but Brexit has already wiped $2.08 trillion off global equity markets.

On top of the U.K.’s financial woes, the mayor of Calais is threatening to revoke immigration agreements with the U.K., sending many more refugees and immigrants over to the U.K. side.

Ultimately, it came down to an issue of sovereignty, a subject England doesn’t seem to quite understand in regards to Scotland and others, but triumphs as the most important overall factor in its momentous vote. This hypocritical stance has some experts, such as Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, predicting that “in five years, there will no longer be a United Kingdom.”

The irony is that sovereignty is not gained in today’s world when countries cede from international institutions and isolate themselves. A strict adherence to Westphalian sovereignty, a concept developed in a non-globalized world, is a naïve aspiration that can no longer be achieved.

The simple truth is that the actions of other nations in multilateral institutions, economically and politically, have an immediate effect on those participating in the discussions and those who do not.

By silencing itself, the U.K. has actually lost power and control over its domestic affairs and economy, and therefore has forfeited some of its precious “sovereignty”. The selective rosy memories of a time when isolationism was a viable foreign policy are just that, memories, not reality. In the age of globalization we have all forfeited some sense of sovereignty that will never be regained, even if you keep your eyes shut and refuse to talk.

The U.K.’s vote was as detrimental to Europe as it was to itself. “Leave’s” victory spurred on by short sightedness and ignorance had many Googling the next day what the EU was and what Brexit would mean for the country, bringing in a tidal wave of “Regrexit”.

“Leave” insists Brexit is a form of reengagement with the world but it is a futile and unrealistic excuse to mask the real reasons behind the vote that was championed largely by elderly and rural-based populations. 

Brexit is the biggest existential threat the EU has ever faced. The precedent of a major member leaving brings fears of a domino effect. Even worse, if the U.K. is actually better off in a few years, many more members with populist movements will also leave, citing the U.K. as a successful example, marking the dissolution of the European Union as we know it.

In response to this threat, EU members will make life outside the Union as difficult as possible even if it means their economies suffer as well, setting a new precedent that if you leave the EU, you will be ostracized and you will suffer.

While the U.K. has isolated itself from Europe and the U.S., as the special relationship is a lot less special now, Germany and France have gained international power, with the U.K. ceding the majority of its influence in the Union to them. The U.K., always skeptical of the European project, often delayed action and the effectiveness of Europe. What the EU loses in capabilities, it will gain in effectiveness in the long term.

Nonetheless, nobody ultimately gained from this decision and the consequences remain to be seen. Winston Churchill, one of the principal architects of the modern era, would be disappointed that we have ceded to populist sentiments derived from instability and turmoil and abandoned the mechanisms of cooperation established to address these exact problems.

If Europe were considered fragmented before, this decision has only stoked the fire in the short term. The abandonment of European unity and aspirations provokes haunting fears of the past, when the continent was divided and constantly at war. The U.K.’s isolationist fantasy and ignorant hypocrisy, for the moment, will cost us all dearly.

Lucas Della Ventura has worked in different capacities at the U.S. State Department, Atlantic Council, and the U.S. House of Representatives. All views and opinions expressed are the author’s alone.