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Robert McGarveyVoters in Britain will determine the fate of the European Union on June 23. A decision to ‘Brexit’ – leave the 28-nation EU – could have far-reaching implications for Britain and the world.

Arguments for Britain leaving the EU tend to focus on seemingly irrational fears: fear of being swamped by foreign immigration, fear of British laws being determined by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels and the popular fear that precious British resources are being wasted, flushed down a European black hole.

In one of the more hysterical comments, Conservative cabinet minister Penny Mordaunt claimed that millions of gun-toting criminals would invade Britain when Turkey joined the European Union – which she claimed could happen within the decade. Prime Minister David Cameron was quick to rebuke his armed forces minister, but clearly the Brexit debate has entered a bizarre twilight zone of irrationality.

It all sounds rather hysterical from this distance. So what is the reality on the ground?

How about the idea that Britain will suffer from foreign immigration? It’s ironic, and historically untrue, that Britons are somehow not European; there wouldn’t be a Britain if not for mass invasions from the Continent. Celtic tribes that originated in Europe (mostly from France) populated Britain in antiquity. The British Isles were subsequently invaded and populated many times by Romans, Saxons from Germany, several waves of Viking invaders from Scandinavia and, of course, there was that famous invasion by the Normans in 1066 (the dreaded French again). So clearly there’s a lot of Continental cultural influence in Britain and always has been.

The suggestion there will be a loss of sovereignty is also a red herring. It’s shocking that some Britons should feel threatened by what the rest of the world considers a bastion of civility and prosperity. Europe is populated with liberal democracies, which share a lot of history and core values with the British. Yes, these systems vary and there are subtle differences in values but, honestly, the political debates raging in Brussels are no different than the debates raging in Britain.

As for the money argument, the European Union gives as well as it gets. Membership in the EU provides British businesses and citizens with access to one of the largest and most highly-prized markets in the world. There is no guarantee that this access would automatically be recoverable in the event of Brexit.

Furthermore, lest we forget, the reason the European Union was formed in the first place was to avoid another catastrophic (and hugely expensive) European war. Britain paid a very heavy price in the 20th century for European disunion; there’s no desire – and certainly no financial savings – from a return to the old system of independent and competitive nation states.

So what’s driving the desire for Brexit?

The ‘island’ mentality is much stronger in Britain than most North Americans appreciate and this sense of separateness has a huge influence on their character. In times of stress it leads them to withdraw inward, rather than advancing with confidence.

The reality is, Europe needs Britain just as Britain needs Europe.

Britain has some unique qualities that Europe and the world need desperately. From Magna Carta onward, the law has been a stronger guardian of rights in Britain than it has generally been on the Continent. With extremism on the rise in Europe, Britain’s identity as a solid pillar for the law could be decisive.

The British temperament is also a highly desired virtue. British democracy was forged in the fires of the English civil wars and was greatly influenced by Oliver Cromwell’s extremism in the 1600s. The lessons learned in those difficult times are among the reasons that the parliamentary system works so well. Britain’s stiff upper lip is really a learned quality of personal restraint and desire for unity that would serve Europe well.

In addition, Britain has been the designer and author of some of the world’s most successful federations (Canada included). There would not be a United States without the federal structure and idealistic underpinnings of British philosopher John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers.

Now more than ever, Britain’s high principles and experience in structuring successful federations are needed to preserve the noble experiment that is Europe. Britain has a critical role to play.

Let’s hope that on June 23, the British people abandon island isolation and seize the moment to help lead a reinvigorated Europe into the 21st century.

Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and former managing director of Merlin Consulting, a London, U.K.-based consulting firm. Robert’s most recent book is Futuromics: A Guide to Thriving in Capitalism’s Third Wave.

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