Anne Applebaum: Leaving the EU will weaken Britain and its place in Europe

If this were 1996 instead of 2016, if the greatest crisis facing Europe was the Bosnian war, if the United States were the only superpower and if Britain still had an army of 250,000 — and a foreign policy to match — then I might say, yes: If you are willing to pay the economic price, then do it. Vote Leave.

But this is 2016, not 1996. The West, as we used to call it, no longer dominates the international political system. Western ideas — which are all British ones — about democracy, rule of law and competitive, free-market economics are in retreat around the world. American prestige and influence are waning everywhere, and after this year’s presidential election they will certainly shrink further. 

America itself may also be changing. Donald Trump, the Republican Party presidential front-runner, advocates torture, mass deportation and religious discrimination. He cares nothing for Nato, the Special Relationship, or security guarantees. Of Europe, he has written that “their conflicts are not worth American lives. Pulling back from Europe would save this country millions of dollars annually”. But even if Trump loses, the rise of isolationism in the US cannot be discounted — he clearly has a constituency — and the possibility that the US military presence in Europe will weaken cannot be ignored. 

Not that Nato even matters as much as it once did in any case, for the greatest challenges to Western democracies right now are not strictly military. On the eastern borders of the Continent, a revanchist Russia seeks to undo the liberal order and undermine Nato by exporting corruption, buying politicians, funding radical parties and manipulating social media. 

To the south, an explosion of fanaticism, violence and poverty has transformed Europe’s hinterland. Across the Continent and beyond, populist advocates of protectionism, xenophobia and authoritarianism are growing loud and powerful.   

If you imagine these to be problems that only afflict people living in faraway countries of which you know little, then think again. Muslim extremism is already here: fanaticism can’t be stopped by a barbed wire fence, as Iain Duncan Smith imagines, or even by the choppy waters of the Channel. The murderers of soldier Lee Rigby outside Woolwich Barracks in 2013 didn’t cross any EU borders to get here; the terrorists who blew up Tube trains in 2005 were all British too. 

As for the powerful, influential advocates of crony capitalism, they’re all here already too. Have a stroll around central London, feel the presence of Russian, Kazakh, Chinese and Arab money and think about how much of it is being spent on lawyers and lobbyists who want to mould the laws and customs of this country in their favour, the better to evade British taxes and to launder illegal money. 

‘Outside Europe, we will have fewer allies to help us fight terrorism, fewer friends to help us resist the power of the new oligarchies’

Anne Applebaum

Nato, even if it stays together, will not protect us from these financial, political and ideological threats, let alone from the hybrid wars of the future. Nor will the World Trade Organisation, the United Nations security council, or any other international institution you care to name. The only international institution explicitly committed both to democratic government and to rule-based markets in Europe is the European Union. It’s an institution that we have helped shape, and although we don’t always realise it, it promotes our view of the world, advocates competition and campaigns for the removal of barriers to trade. 

It’s also an institution within which we have allies, and can create coalitions. Inside Europe, for example, we were able to impose meaningful sanctions on Russia’s most corrupt oligarchs, putting them in place and keeping them in place thanks to a EU process. Inside Europe, we already share experience in counter-terrorism and information about terrorists with other Europeans who are fighting the same things as us. Inside Europe, we already have recourse if our people or products are subjected to discrimination.

Outside Europe, we will be on our own. We will have fewer allies to help us fight terrorism, fewer friends to help us resist the power of the new oligarchies. We will have fewer partners who share our vision of rules-based free trade. The US — even if it isn’t run by a President Trump — is right now negotiating a free trade deal with the EU, and has no interest in turning around and doing a separate one with us. The Chinese might do a deal — they like negotiating with weaker partners — but I hope no one here expects a country which steals intellectual property and commercial information to hold up some British notion of “rule of law” or “fair play” in trade.  

Finally, by leaving the EU we will not isolate ourselves from the wave of protectionism and xenophobia on the Continent. Brexit is more likely to strengthen them. Marine Le Pen in France wants the EU to fall apart and for Nato to be dismantled. So do radical parties in the Netherlands, Scandinavia, central Europe and even Germany. 

It is a grave mistake to imagine that these continental eurosceptics are our allies. All of them want to put an end to the Europe of markets, trade and rule of law. All of them want to destroy the EU because they believe free trade is a bulwark against the authoritarianism they want to build. 

If Britain leaves, it will help them make their case. If they succeed, the result will be a Europe from which Britain is excluded, and within which British views and values will be diminished. The result could be a world which is less democratic, less law-abiding and less free. Britain will not be richer, happier or more powerful as a result.  

Anne Applebaum is an editor of InFacts, a journalistic enterprise making the fact-based case for Britain to stay in the EU, and a columnist for the Washington Post.