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Jean Pisani-Ferry: Britain’s Road to Obedience

Instead of liberating Britain from European influence, the so-called "Brexit" would make the country a European economic satellite.

Everybody knows it is not Europe that will shape the 21st century. The days when this continent ruled have long since passed. Gone even are the days when its values shaped the building of the global order. Yet we still have the resources to be significant players in the global conversation. Economically, monetarily, financially, militarily, culturally and, ultimately, politically, we continue to matter. We can still promote multilateralism, the rule of law, fair competition, even democracy and social justice. And whereas there is nothing we can dictate anymore, there is as yet no international law that we must abide by without having been party to its drafting.

This remaining influence, however, only holds as long as we know what we stand for and remain together. A British decision to leave the EU would weaken it significantly.

Without Britain, Europe would still have weight, but a severely diminished one. It would have lost its financial center. It would be put at a distance from its common language, a large part of its cultural heritage and its best universities. And the global London-based media, that are often more European than British, would inevitably become more detached.

For sure, geography would still matter and the Eurostar would still run from London to Paris and Brussels. But the powerful logic of divorce would tear preferences and behaviors apart. For sure, the other EU members might find it easier to agree on the budget or social policies. But a Brexit would not dispel home-grown continental Euroscepticism.

Britain would be set to lose even more. The careful competence review carried out by the Foreign Office over the last three years has not identified significant fields where repatriation of decision-making powers would benefit the UK. Instead, it has found many where it would have to pay an economic price for leaving the EU.

For this reason, Britain would in all likelihood want to retain access to the European market. After painful discussions, it would probably negotiate some sort of Norwegian or Swiss status and a large part of the EU economic legislation would apply across the channel. London would simply have lost the voice it had in preparing this legislation.

Having left, Britain would certainly posture and claim full national sovereignty. But de facto, it might become a sort of economic satellite. The façade would be independence, but the reality obedience. How could a nation known for its pragmatism make such a choice?

Jean Pisani-Ferry