New information about the UK’s referendum on whether to stay in the EU is making its way to headlines in the UK, Europe, and the U.S., and with it comes the reality of what this vote means for the future of Europe and the transatlantic relationship. Three key announcements were made this week. First, British prime minister David Cameron announced that he had reached a deal with fellow European leaders about the country’s relationship with the twenty-eight member Union and that a vote would be held on 23 June 2016, to decide the country’s fate. Second, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, made it clear that he would be voting “no” to the referendum, and urged others to follow his lead. The announcement by Johnson is a significant blow to Cameron’s campaign, as Johnson’s announcement gives the “out” campaign a champion from a significant position in the UK government. Third, while lines were drawn within the Tory Party, party leader Jeremy Corbyn announced in a Facebook video that the Labor Party will campaign to stay in the EU but not without criticizing Prime Minister Cameron’s negotiating power with fellow EU leaders. In a speech to Parliament, Corbyn said that “as a country, as a continent, and as a human race” the challenges of the twenty-first century “can be better met in a real social Europe,” a view that is not shared by some within the UK and Europe.
European leaders know that a “Brexit” threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the European project, which champions integration within the region and is being challenged by the Greek debt crisis and the refugee crisis. Germany’s role in the EU will differ in three key arenas: economics, politics, and security. Economically, Europe is certain to be poorer without Britain, a significant problem for finding solutions to both the euro and migration crises. The market volatility that followed the announcements regarding the UK’s EU referendum suggest the pound is likely to suffer as a consequence of a “Brexit” and it is equally as likely to take the euro down with it. As far as politics go, a Europe without Britain sees a stronger, more hegemonic Germany, which to some already holds too strong a voice in the Union. Germany will benefit politically from a “Brexit” in that its greatest opponent in policies will no longer have a say in the decisions made at the EU level. In the security arena, with the loss of its biggest military power, a historically hesitant Germany will be forced to step up and contribute more to European foreign and security policy. Without Britain, it would be a harder to achieve a unified European contribution to the West’s security agenda—a consequence that could also carry over to the NATO alliance.
The significance of the EU referendum has far-reaching implications within the UK, within Europe, and within the transatlantic alliance. As the first country to leave the EU, a “Brexit” would trigger an unraveling of the European project as we have known it. The uncertainty of what June 23 will bring is likely to have an impact on decisions made in the meantime.