Rome—There has been much checkbook rattling in Europe in response to Great Britain’s decision to exit the European Union with cries that the UK must absolutely be punished to deter anyone else who might want to bolt.
Forget it. The continent is too full of its own problems—both political and economic—to come down too hard on Britain. And it shouldn’t.
Will Obama and the EU leave the UK?
And that goes for President Barack Obama, too, who is already backing off from his ill-conceived threat to put the UK “at the back of the queue” on any future trade agreements with the US.
As the appeal of an EU “ever closer union” utopia has faded among actual European people, the union’s bureaucracy got used to telling individual member states what to do through threats. But the UK is not Greece, or even supine Italy. The UK has some things going for it that make some sort of summary execution unlikely.
One is the UK’s economic to individual EU countries, notably Germany. Germany exported $51 billion to the UK last year, more than it sold to China, with whom, unlike Britain, the Germans run a deficit. The UK is Germany’s third largest trade partner after France and the US. Maybe German industrialists will forego this commerce in the name of uncertain European centralization. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned the UK it can’t expect to have a favorable trade deal with the continent but also suggested that everybody take a breath and not try to force the UK’s hand too fast. Maybe Berlin, along with Paris, is willing to risk an economic downturn in advance of elections next year. Or maybe not.
Then there is the issue of continental security. The UK’s soon-to-be-ex-Prime Minister, the bumbling David Cameron, may be treated like a leper at the current EU summit, but what about at next month’s NATO meeting in Warsaw? There, Europe, especially its nervous eastern members, will want concrete reassurance of NATO defense against an unpredictable Vladimir Putin.
Fickle France and toothless Italy won’t provide credible guarantees, nor can non-fighting Germany. Only the US and its traditional wingman, the UK, really provide muscle. Are the eastern Europeans, at least, going to be swayed by the rantings of such geopolitical non-entities as EU Commission President Jean Claude Juncker (from military powerhouse Luxembourg!) and severely weaken Britain?
Even Obama, who threatened the Brits with downgraded “back of the queue” status last April, has rediscovered the “special relationship.” Obama may have noticed, regardless of his opinion of America’s recent wars, that in Afghanistan and Iraq, only allied British troops actually fired bullets in support of the US.
So, under questioning during a Monday interview with CNBC, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew refused to repeat Obama’s queue threat. Instead he blathered on that, well, you know, there are trade talks with the EU, and one thing effects another, it’s a “chronological matter” and blah-blah.
The UK is in political turmoil. But so is practically every key country in Europe, and they were long before the Brexit referendum. In part, continental instability has exploded over the question of moving to a closer union or not. The British vote made everyone face that question head on. Maybe they should be rewarded, not punished.
Coming soon: the NATO summit.