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May 4, 2016
The United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union would have a “dramatic effect” on the stability of the West, warned Lord George Robertson, who has served as Secretary General of NATO as well as the United Kingdom’s Defence Minister.

British voters will decide in a June 23 referendum on whether the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union. British Prime Minister David Cameron is leading the camp that wants the UK to remain in the bloc; London Mayor Boris Johnson favors a British exit. Latest polls show a sharply divided public.

“What’s at stake on June 23 in many ways is not just Britain’s role in Europe, but the role of Europe in the world,” Robertson said in an interview at the Atlantic Council on May 4. He is a member of the Council’s International Advisory Board and a senior counselor at the Cohen Group.

A Brexit would have “a dramatic effect on Britain and the wider world who rely on Britain’s role in the European Union for stability,” he said. “Britain is seen as being part of the European Union, a strong partner in the European Union, and its withdrawal from it will have a negative effect and a cascading effect.”

Many European nations could face pressure to hold referendums on their own EU memberships.

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka has already predicted a discussion along the lines of Brexit in his country, and Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has said the EU has “lost its magic power.”

Robertson said a Brexit would also strengthen far-right political groups in the UK and the EU.

What if the UK leaves?

There is considerable uncertainty about what would happen if British voters decide to leave the EU. There is no precedent for a member state leaving the EU. Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty states that if the outcome of a referendum favors leaving, the country has two years to negotiate a formal exit.

“The Leave campaign is highly unspecific about what will happen in the aftermath of a Brexit decision,” said Robertson. “There will be huge uncertainty, there will be an immediate economic cost, and the ramifications themselves can really be measured. That is one of the failings of the Leave campaign. It is based on emotion and not on the realities of what would happen to the UK, its economy, and its outside relations if we were to decide to leave the European Union,” he added.

The “special relationship”

The United States and the United Kingdom share a “special relationship” that could also be undermined in the event of a British exit from the EU.

On a visit to London on April 22, US President Barack Obama urged Britons to “stick together” with the EU. “As citizens of the United Kingdom take stock of their relationship with the EU, you should be proud that the EU has helped spread British values and practices—democracy, the rule of law, open markets—across the continent and to its periphery,” he wrote in the Daily Telegraph.

Obama was perfectly within his limits to advocate on behalf of the UK staying in the EU, said Robertson. “This is a decision that does not just affect the British people, it will have profound effects on the outside world and people need to realize that,” he said.

A United Kingdom?

A Brexit could also have significant consequences for the makeup of the UK itself. Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon has sought the right to hold a new referendum on Scottish independence if the UK leaves the EU “against our will.”

“If the vote was in favor of leaving the EU, but it was different in Scotland, that would certainly create some tensions inside the United Kingdom,” said Robertson.

But, he said, it would “not automatically lead to another referendum” on Scottish independence. “The only way in which the nationalists would want another referendum is if they were absolutely certain they could win it,” he said.

“A lot of things will fall out of a Brexit result. One of them would be the integrity of the United Kingdom. That would certainly be, in the long term, in question,” he added.

George Robertson spoke in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: What is at stake on June 23?

Robertson: What’s at stake on June 23 in many ways is not just Britain’s role in Europe, but the role of Europe in the world. The United Kingdom is a huge and important and influential part of the European Union, and therefore Britain coming out of the European Union would have an effect on the Union itself. It would also have a dramatic effect on Britain and the wider world who rely on Britain’s role in the European Union for stability.

Q: The United States and the United Kingdom share a “special relationship.” Will a UK that is outside the EU be significantly less important to the United States?

Robertson: Some aspects of the special relationship will continue, especially on the intelligence front. But in other ways Britain’s exit from the European Union would inevitably mean that it would have less influence in Washington because it wasn’t part of that network of connections that America relies on—with all the countries in the European Union. Some parts of the special relationship would remain, but, in general Britain’s role in that relationship would be much diminished.

Q: What impact could a Brexit have on the US presidential campaign in which the presumptive Republican nominee advocates an isolationist policy? And what impact could Donald Trump’s electoral success have on the Brexit debate?

Robertson: The Brexit debate is not really going to be influenced by Donald Trump’s candidacy, although I think he scares people on both the right and the left in British politics. But Brexit and the exit of the UK from the European Union would have a dramatic effect on stability of the West and, indeed, of most of the world.

Britain is seen as being part of the European Union, a strong partner in the European Union, and its withdrawal from it will have a very negative effect and a cascading effect, too. Many countries in Europe would face pressures for referendums of their own; it would undoubtedly help the extreme populist right and some of its anti-Europeanism at the present moment. So, all in all, the external effects of Brexit would be very considerable indeed.

Q: The leader of the Scottish National Party has said another referendum on Scottish independence should be held if the UK were to leave the EU. What are the consequences for the United Kingdom if it were to leave the EU?

Robertson: If the vote was in favor of leaving the EU, but it was different in Scotland, that would certainly create some tensions inside the United Kingdom. It would not automatically lead to another referendum [for Scottish independence]. The only way in which the nationalists would want another referendum is if they were absolutely certain they could win it. So this might just be one element in that.

A lot of things will fall out of a Brexit result. One of them would be the integrity of the United Kingdom. That would certainly be, in the long term, in question.

Q: Regardless of how it turns out, what implications do you see of this Brexit debate on overall European unity?

Robertson: There will undoubtedly be a cascading effect from any decision to leave because there are populist anti-EU movements in other countries who will be revitalized and I think it will cause very considerable problems for other countries who will see this as a precedent.

Q: What are your thoughts on President Obama’s decision to make a public pitch in London for the UK to remain in the EU?

Robertson: President Obama is perfectly within his rights to express a view about how America will take the exit of Britain from the European Union. A lot of thinking people in the country felt that his contribution was measured, and was sensible and, I believe, listened carefully to what he said.

Many people in America find him controversial at the moment, but he is universally popular in the UK and in Europe generally. So his warning about the implications of Brexit will have had an effect and he has absolutely the right to say it. This is a decision that does not just affect the British people, it will have profound effects on the outside world and people need to realize that.

Q: Is there clarity on the day after if the UK were to decide to leave the EU?

Robertson: The Leave campaign is highly unspecific about what will happen in the aftermath of a Brexit decision. There will be huge uncertainty, there will be an immediate economic cost, and the ramifications themselves can really be measured. That is one of the failings of the Leave campaign. It is based on emotion and not on the realities of what would happen to the UK, its economy, and its outside relations if we were to decide to leave the European Union.

Ashish Kumar Sen is Deputy Director, Editorial, at the Atlantic Council.