Brexit's judgment day

Outrage at a seemingly out-of-touch political establishment. Deep suspicions of immigrants and their impact on the economy. Rising nationalism and an unpredictable electorate. That may sound like the United States facing the choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, but it's also the circumstances surrounding Great Britain and its vote tomorrow over whether to leave the European Union.

The Brexit campaign has been heated and ugly — even before the assassination last week of Member of Parliament Jo Cox by an attacker who allegedly shouted "Britain first" while shooting and stabbing her. But it's also proving too close to call. That wasn't the expectation weeks ago, given opposition by Prime Minster David Cameron and the clear consensus among economists that the country's economy would suffer greatly if it breaks EU ties — perhaps reducing growth by as much as 5.6 percent over the next several years.


Yet many working class Brits don't seem to care what the economists or political leaders have to say. They are fearful of outsiders, and while the refugee crisis that's hit much of Europe hasn't had the same impact on Great Britain (and Mr. Cameron has already pledged to keep a lid on migration into the country in the future), there's clearly a fear of what could happen next.

Sound familiar? Just as Donald Trump has used fear of Mexican and Muslim immigrants to motivate and mobilize his supporters, the so-called Leave campaign has stoked its own brand of xenophobia. The Scottish independence vote of two years ago offered a taste of that same hysteria and ultra-nationalism, but cooler heads prevailed — with a 55-45 percent decision not to make Scotland an independent country. Should Brexit be approved, that decision may yet be revisited.


Americans would be wise to pay attention. Not only because Brexit could hurt Great Britain and the 27 other EU countries, our nation's most important trading partners, and tilt the global economy toward recession, but because it would diminish Britain's clout in the world at a time when the U.S. could use the help of its closest ally in matters of foreign policy, from containing Russia to dealing with international terrorism and the many simmering problems in the Middle East.

Already, stock market analysts are bracing for the worst should Brexit prevail. Besides a short-term drop in equity values, it could also signal the kind of isolationism and nationalism that kills trade agreements, including the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the proposed U.S.-European Union trade deal that is still under negotiations. The TTIP has been touted as a potential $100 billion boost to the U.S. economy.

Should the Leave supporters prevail, it will also be a huge political blow to Prime Minister Cameron who foolishly promised to put Brexit on the ballot even though he opposes it. Like the Republican Party, the Tories are divided over immigration, and putting the EU departure on the ballot was seen as a way to keep the coalition together. But at what cost?

One of the ironies of the Brexit vote is that if Britain leaves the European Union, it wouldn't necessarily reduce migration. Should Britain want to keep free trade, it would no doubt join the European Economic Area with other non-EU countries like Norway and Iceland and would have to retain a free movement of labor.

Again, the parallels to the current presidential election season seem substantial, with former Secretary of State Clinton representing the more cautious and rational establishment view and Mr. Trump seemingly more aligned with the United Kingdom Independence Party and the angry Tory members who want to leave the EU behind. Meanwhile, ordinary Brits are just perplexed at how concerns about inequality, globalization and immigration could have become so divisive.

Thus, for Americans, the most frightening prospect is that a triumph by Leave might set the stage for a Trump victory in the fall propelled by the same volatile mix of isolationism and short-term economic thinking that has fanned the Brexit flames. Scapegoating foreigners and emotional appeals to us-first patriotism aren't new, particularly in challenging economic times. But the rise of trade barriers is never helpful to economic growth and long-term prosperity, which ought to be the real goal for U.S. and British leaders.