It was a union for the ages, until it wasn't. Is Europe lost?

Britain’s vote to quit the European Union is the enterprise’s worst setback since it was conceived in the 1950s. Until now, the EU has always grown in scale and ambition. For the first time, Brexit shows that Europe’s manifest destiny – ever closer union – may not be destiny after all.

Merely knowing that European integration can be reversed is a threat: It makes the unthinkable thinkable. But this isn’t the only danger. The union is increasingly unpopular not only in the U.K. but also in other European countries. Its political capital is depleted. Working through the mechanics of Brexit may deepen divisions, severely testing the union’s ability to adapt.

Brexit could conceivably spur support for the union. But this will demand consensus, flexibility, and farsighted calculation, none of which can be taken for granted. If governments can’t rise to this challenge, Brexit may be the beginning of the end of the European dream. In one way, today’s discontent is nothing new. There has often been a gap between the grandest designs of Europe’s leaders and the readiness of the continent’s citizens to go along. The EU’s remarkable achievements in securing peace and prosperity in the postwar era required brave, visionary leadership, and voters were rarely up to speed. For years, that was fine. The model was top-down institution-building, followed by good results, then popular backing-in that order.

It all worked beautifully. Europe’s postwar political and economic reconstruction was a modern miracle. But now the model is failing. The Brits aren’t the proof. They’ve always been uncomfortable in the EU, late to the party and a nuisance throughout; their vote to quit was a shock, but probably shouldn’t have been. Lately, though, the disenchantment has spread far more widely. According to one recent poll, the EU is less popular in France-France!-than in the U.K.

Sadly, the clock can’t be turned back. A complete remodeling risks a collapse of the entire enterprise and seems out of the question. What’s worse, a partial remodeling will be almost as hard. Even modest incremental reforms to allow flexibility where national politics demands it (as with free movement of workers) or new institutions where economics demands it (fiscal union) are likely to require treaty changes. Treaty changes require unanimous approval by member states and, in many cases, parliamentary ratification and/or-perish the thought-referendums.

The current mood of discontent therefore makes Europe’s leaders shy away from changing the treaties, a move that would expose the EU to greater popular scrutiny. It’s a characteristically European dilemma: The less popular the union, and by the same token the stronger the case for change, the more reluctant governments are to attempt serious reform. Overreach meets institutionalized paralysis.

In the short term, the rot can probably be stopped at Brexit. The U.K.’s experience is sure to be challenging, and that will discourage copycats. Even so, Europe’s future seems certain to be heavy on discontent and chronic economic disappointment, and light on dreams come true.

– Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist and member of the editorial board based in Washington.

Leave a Reply