Brexit: the beginning of the end of the EU?
Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave? That is the question on which the British people will have their say in a referendum on 23 June. If a majority vote to leave the EU – the famous Brexit –, that will end more than 40 years of British EU membership. There is wide disagreement on the consequences of such a move. Brexit backers see a bright future in which the United Kingdom, freed from the yoke of Brussels, will regain its sovereignty and economic vitality. The Remain camp believes an exit will lead to economic disaster, the breakup of the UK and even instability on the continent of Europe.
Who has right on their side is difficult to say. What is certain is that a British departure will reinforce the prevailing mood of crisis and uncertainty in the EU. After all, until a few years ago the threat of a British exit could be seen as a typical British problem, as a logical consequence of a relationship between the UK and the European continent that was difficult right from the start. Whereas other countries joined the EU out of conviction, that was never true in the British case. Aloofness, reticence and hostility at times have always been characteristics of the British attitude. An attitude resulting in membership which, with opt-outs on the euro, Schengen and whatever else, can be seen as half-hearted. From that perspective, the referendum of 23 June is to some extent remarkable. After all, the UK has everything it wants. Access to the European market and exemptions from those parts of the EU to which it objects.
But unfortunately a possible Brexit can no longer be viewed as an incident, as a blip in the unstoppable progress towards ever-greater European integration. If it happens, it will send shockwaves through the Union, the consequences of which are difficult to gauge. A British exit would come at a time when the EU is cracking on all fronts, due the economic crisis, disunity concerning refugees, instability surrounding the Union, etc. But the cracking is primarily a consequence of the growing scepticism in more and more Member States about the utility and necessity of European integration. Scepticism which is being fuelled in Member States by mistrust of the political elite, people’s dissatisfaction with their own lives and uncertainty about the future.
This blaze of Euroscepticism has spread rapidly through the EU, with Germany being the most recent victim. A British exit would be grist to the mill of these Eurosceptic forces, with the risk of the fire becoming uncontrollable. Research already shows that a majority of the population in some Member States want a referendum on their country’s EU membership. That mood will only grow stronger in the event of a British exit. In that regard the referendum of 23 June is an expression of the deep crisis in which the EU is mired. And that crisis will not recede even if the British people vote to ‘remain’. Aside from the fact that a deeply divided UK will be an even more difficult partner, the referendum virus and Euroscepticism have taken too strong a hold in the Member States.