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The Consequences Of The Brexit Referendum


In less than a couple of weeks, voters in the United Kingdom will decide whether or not to leave the European Union. Polls right now show almost an even split between stay and go with a high number of undecided voters. Lionel Barber, the editor of the Financial Times, joins us. Lionel, thanks for being with us.

LIONEL BARBER: Good to be here, Scott.

SIMON: And let's get this on the record first. You believe Britain should remain, right?

BARBER: The Financial Times is pro-British membership of the European Union. We have taken that position for decades. But we are not starry-eyed about the European Union. And we do not believe and have not believed for at least 10 years that Britain should be part of the euro.

SIMON: Is there anything in the debate that's been going on for a few months now about whether to stay or to go that has surprised you or notably affected you?

BARBER: I think that I've been a little bit surprised that immigration has had such traction given the overwhelmingly important economic consequences of leaving. And there hasn't been enough discussion of what it would really be like for Britain to be outside the European Union. And that surprised me on the other side.

SIMON: Hasn't the argument - at least as I've heard it from people who are in favor of an exit - the argument they seem to make is if the trade agreements make sense, they will be restored.

BARBER: They say that, but they don't give sufficient weight to the fact that it will take time for us to renegotiate a relationship with our most important trading partner, which is the countries of Europe. Just to say, well, we'll have the same arrangement as under our WTO - World Trade Organization agreement - doesn't pay sufficient weight to tension, to the complexity.

SIMON: Hasn't Britain always been a little uncomfortable in the EU? May I quote "Richard II?"

BARBER: Please do. You're not giving me that England, that wondrous England.

SIMON: I'm afraid so - this fortress built by nature, this little world, this blessed plot, this realm, this England.

BARBER: I love "Richard II" - I actually like "Richard III" a lot more. But Britain's always been a kind of reluctant member of the European Union, on the outside. But we're also what I would call the useful troublemaker. Actually, countries hide behind us when they want somebody to speak truth to the power of Germany or stand up to the French. We British play an important role in Europe, even if we have a traditional and historical ambivalence towards the continent.

SIMON: Among the consequences that people have proposed would you - if there is an exit, would you foresee, for example, Scotland leaving the U.K.?

BARBER: Well, it's possible. The low oil price means that Scottish independence doesn't look half as attractive as it did three or four years ago. But I do think that Brexit, an exit of Britain from the European Union, would trigger real pressure on the United Kingdom.

It's important also, Scott, to recognize that there would be political consequences on the continent. That's why influential, important, expert people in Europe feel that if Britain leaves, that could have a trigger effect and re-nationalize Europe.

SIMON: In other words, other western and perhaps even eastern European states would want to rethink their membership.

BARBER: I think it's more the Nordic rim, like Sweden, Denmark - somewhat ambivalent, too, in their relations with Europe then. Obviously, Sweden's not part of the euro, for example, nor is Denmark. You've also seen euro skepticism rising in places like the Netherlands and populism rising. I've got through this interview without mentioning Donald Trump once, and I think that's a record. But we have Trumpist (ph) tendencies in Europe. Look up Marine Le Pen in France. Look at the Five Star Movement headed by a clown by profession, Beppe Grillo, in Italy.

SIMON: Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times, thanks very much for being with us.

BARBER: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.