April 4, 2016 | by Mark Littlewood Print

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Imagine, access to a market with 500 million people, which is also the largest economic body in the world. Free access to an economic area which accounts for more than 50 percent of your trade. A political union with the nations that invented democracy and that created Les droits de l’homme. Many of those outside the United Kingdom (and a number within it) reasonably ask themselves “why is Britain considering leaving the European Union?”

However, scratch below the surface and you will see plenty to make free marketeers, libertarians, and small-state conservatives question the European Project.

The referendum in the United Kingdom has been brought about thanks to those two great agents of change — principled opposition and political expediency. In 1973, the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community, which at the time was a free-trade zone that promoted competitive policies across the parts of Europe not under Soviet or military domination. During the past 40 years, however, it has changed beyond all recognition. The EU today is an over-centralized behemoth, becoming more interventionist in the economic sphere at the expense of competitiveness between member states. Environmental, agricultural, fisheries, and now corporate taxation policies are just a few examples of areas that the EU seeks control over, despite these being issues that should be decided at national or local levels.

Unfortunately, it is not only the growth of Brussels regulation — 65 percent of U.K. laws introduced since 1993 have originated in Brussels — that must be blamed for the turn against the EU. The free movement of people, while having a measurably positive impact on Britain’s economy, has simultaneously caused the already creaky British welfare state to teeter toward catastrophe.

The grumblers about ‘euro-crats’ and immigrants might have stayed on the fringe, however, had it not been for David Cameron’s desire to protect himself from criticism from the right of his party. Believing he would never have to actually carry out his promise and that his coalition partners would veto an EU referendum, Cameron offered his party a referendum on EU membership prior to the 2015 election. It is another object lesson that the spontaneous order of democracy can stymie the best-laid plans.

The arguments for and against the EU are contentious and often difficult to quantify. On trade, the economy, and security, which side of the debate you agree with will often depend on your underlying assumptions.

On trade, for example, those who support the U.K. remaining in the EU argue that a large amount of British trade is dependent on being a gateway to Europe, not to mention the risk that the EU would retaliate with trade barriers against British goods. Meanwhile, those who wish to leave direct attention to countries like Chile, which trades freely in markets worth US$90 trillion — more than three times larger than what the U.K. can freely access.

Fundamentally, both sides of the debate contain unknowable risks, and at the end many will have to rely on intuitive judgements. If you believe in a “Brexit” from the EU, then the fears of an ever-growing EU presence in domestic affairs — not to mention concerns over another euro crisis or terrorist atrocity — will make the “remain” campaign sound like ridiculous scaremongering. If you wish to remain, claims by the “leave” camp that Britain will easily form new free-trade agreements with those we have just chosen to divorce will sound hopelessly naïve.

Both of these are reasonable positions to hold, but which side you come down on will likely depend on whether you believe Britain can be a successful independent actor on the world stage. Advocates of remaining see Britain outside the EU as poorer, more isolated, and most likely under the control of Little Englanders who would spurn international cooperation and close the borders to immigration. Those who advocate leaving, such as myself, see a Brexit as an opportunity to forge a new, more internationalist future. I see a small-state, free-trading Britain once again open for business worldwide, open for the best immigrants and businesses to come to Britain and succeed — and to enjoy the benefits of that success.

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Mark Littlewood is the director general of the U.K.-based Institute of Economic Affairs and the IEA’s Ralph Harris Fellow. Learn More about Mark Littlewood >