Even after weeks of campaigning, both sides of the referendum campaign have focused entirely on the short-term impacts of the debate. But the question really has to be where Britain will be in ten or 20 years from now.
Britain is actually on the brink of becoming the most powerful nation on the planet. But it has to remain in the EU to realise the ambition.
Before Brexit looked like a real possibility, the Centre for Economics and Business Research predicted that the British economy would overtake Germany’s as the largest in Europe by the 2030s.
Its population is set to rise above 70m by 2030, while Germany’s is likely to shrink. The British population will also be younger.
A separate report by HSBC predicts that by 2050 the total number of working people in the UK will increase by 5-10%, while Germany’s working population will shrink by a massive 29%. There will be more workers in Britain adding to its growing economy.
If these predictions come true, the European power map would look significantly different.
Most power within the EU resides with the Council of the European Union which is made up of the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. Collectively, these bodies pass the EU laws that affect the UK. Currently, there are 751 MEPs in the European Parliament. As the most populous member of the EU, Germany has the most MEPS of any member state at 96.
Germany also has the largest GDP within the EU. Both its population and economic power mean that Germany’s dominance over EU policy has been decisive. It was Germany that brokered the rescue deal between the EU and Greece. Germany negotiated the recent migration deal with Turkey in order to mitigate the migration crisis, and it was instrumental in granting special opt-outs during David Cameron’s recent negotiations on the terms of the UK’s EU membership.
There is good reason to believe that the UK, and its prime minister, would begin to take on a similar role within the Council of the European Union if its population and economy overtook Germany’s. But two other factors would potentially cement the UK’s place at the heart of the EU.
First, London would be likely to retain its position as a global “command centre”, having the advantage of its geographical location and central time zone, combined with a diverse international demographic and highly educated population.
London’s position as an international financial centre is pivotal to Europe’s future economic success. More European companies have their headquarters there than anywhere else in Europe. London has a large continental European population – French citizens alone are thought to number 300,000.
Second, the UK’s relationship with the US strengthens its bargaining power within the EU. The US has recently pushed for trade deals in Asia to sustain its economic growth. But as China and other emerging economies continue to grow, the international economic influence of the US will inevitably wane. During this period of decline it is likely to seek closer ties with the EU to sustain its ideological and economic strength.
The move towards the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the EU and the US signals the beginning of this endeavour.
By carefully managing negotiations on this deal, the UK could strategically position itself as the gatekeeper between US and EU interests. Such a position would make the British PM the powerbroker between two economic giants. It is only together that the US and EU can continue to dominate global economic, social and political policy.
Collectively, a growing population, economic strength, an established international workforce and a special relationship with the US will mean the UK – as part of the EU – would become one of the most powerful countries in the world. Whether this renewed position as a global superpower is a positive for global affairs is of course, a different matter.
Alternatively, Britain can withdraw from the EU and and give up any chance of influencing international politics and shaping economic policy. As Britain floats away from its European partners it would cease to be of much relevance to the US, which would seek new relations with other European nations.
And as emerging economies such as India and Brazil forge ahead, Britain will soon drop off the radars of other large trading partners, including China, which would inevitably focus its attentions on those parts of the world that will bring it the greatest prosperity. Britain’s political and economic global influence, though not obsolete, would be more or less relegated to the pages of the history books.
Viewed in these terms, Britain’s retreat from the EU might seem disastrous – at least for its global influence. Yet a vote to leave need not be so dystopic. Its destiny as a small island nation may be better suited to regional negotiations and bilateral agreements based on self-interest.
Rather than basing future prosperity on global economic power, Britain could move towards an entirely new system of growth. It could focus not on economic output and militaristic might as markers of national pride, but on greater social equality, equity in wealth distribution and improved standards of living for everyone. Free from EU interference and its commitments to neo-liberal markets, the UK would be able to invest in an advanced economy which seeks to both protect and enhance the well-being of its workers. This, however, is probably not the future envisaged by the current government, nor by the leading figures in the Leave camp.
Voters have a stark choice to make. Are they happy for Britain to forge a new place in the world absent of global influence? Or do they want to be part of a country that remains at the centre of international economic development? Do they want to be part of a global effort to advocate human rights? Do they see Britain’s future as a global centre for advancing knowledge, research and enterprise? If so, Britain will have to remain within the EU.