It was not a dignified campaign—and the Leave camp is squarely to blame. The European Union has dragged its feet during recent crises, and it has overpromised in the past, opening itself to justifiable criticism on many fronts. The British case for leaving the European Union could have been grounded in truth. But it was not.
The decision to mostly abandon a rational, solution-driven debate came with a cost. It made the public discourse unhealthy. With unscrupulous rhetoric, the pro-exit camp not only impaired the asset that is the British political culture, it also undermined its own cause.
The British case for leaving the European Union could have been grounded in truth. But it was not.
What could the Leave camp have done if it had chosen to be constructive about the issues and engage in an honest campaign? Suppose advocates of Brexit truly cared not about their own personal agenda, but about the concerns of those British citizens who object to some outcomes brought by free movement of people. The Leave camp could have said: There is pressure on infrastructure and real estate prices, and past governments have failed to address these issues. "Re-entry bans for those who abuse free movement" might have been a salient topic, without exaggerating the number of such cases.
Noneconomic arguments ("the face of Britain is changing") could also have been used. The campaign could have even taken pages out of Branko Milanovic's latest book, where he points out that Europe "lacks the experience that the United States, Canada or Australia have in dealing with immigration." Immigration skeptics could have said: Either we boost educational and civic resources to put in place a genuine assimilation policy, or we put limits in place. That would have been a valid argument.
In a world where facts are respected, Leave supporters would not be perpetuating stereotypes according to which people come to the United Kingdom to claim benefits. They would not deny that, on average, migrants are actually more likely to be employed than native-born citizens. Overall, immigrants are certainly not a drag on the British welfare system.
In an ideal world, the Remain camp would also have listened more, and considered citizens' preferences more carefully. It would have appreciated, for instance, that some Brits voice their opposition to immigration out of personal—and legitimate—disagreement with cosmopolitan values. A provincial outlook cannot be dismissed as less ethical than other philosophies. (It is admittedly true that other opponents of immigration came to their position out of bias or spite; but one cannot axiomatically assign pernicious motives to a broad group of people.)
Instead of a balanced exchange of opinions, what transpired was very different from the thought experiment outlined above. We witnessed slogans about "taking our country back." We saw false claims about Turkey's imminent entry into the European Union, designed to fuel existing anxieties. (Forty-nine percent of the readers of the Economist who answered an online poll believe that "immigration is endangering European society.") Not only is Turkey currently not at the door, but it is farther from the door than it was ten years ago.
Politicians and some media houses openly daydreamed about a magical land with "fewer regulations"—one daily wrote on its front page that Britain would be "free again" after leaving the European Union, while another promised that "a world of opportunity awaits," and still another found a more colorful storybook in which "a great future outside of a broken, dying Europe" was just waiting to be seized. There was a key glitch, of course: Modern economies do not succeed by withdrawing from international agreements. The pro-exit camp asserted Britain would save money by quitting the union, assuming rosily that 27 remaining members would have somehow resisted their urge to penalize Brits, as if they had an incentive to make the divorce easy.
Finally, Leave advocates contributed heftily to a perception that the European Union is a "project for the elites." This is lazy thinking that equates anyone in a suit with a promoter of the interests of the rich. The ongoing work of the hated "bureaucrats" merits an objective assessment—some initiatives, are surely misguided, but the recent serious efforts to clamp down on tax avoidance, to make public budgets more resilient, are one of the best things public officials can do to help the average citizen. Other endeavors, like moving toward a banking union, so that the financial sector becomes safer, are also helping regular people, often at the expense of vested interests.
Overall, the problem the United States and Europe face is not that we have too many international institutions. If anything, we have too few instances of successful cross-border cooperation. Some forms of globalization that are not purely economic (like issues related to assimilation of immigrants) need a re-think, but the euroskeptics have not sincerely looked for solutions, and therefore deserved to lose.
The referendum debate did not have to unfold this way. Four years ago, Ed Milliband, British Labor leader at the time, worried that Britain was "sleepwalking" out of the European Union. What seemed like an unduly pessimistic metaphor at the time turned out to be a generous approximation. Sleepwalkers who hurt others have the legitimate excuse that their actions were not deliberate. But consciously walking away from a cooperative relationship is tougher to forgive.