PARIS – When the United Kingdom joined the then-European Economic Community in 1973, it was at the rearguard of European integration. The question raised by the UK’s upcoming referendum on continued European Union membership is whether Britain is now at the forefront of Europe’s disintegration.
The issue has little to do with the insignificant accord that Prime Minister David Cameron recently reached with his EU colleagues. Indeed, it is hard to believe that this agreement will determine Britain’s fateful choice in June. The fundamental issue is whether EU membership still yields large enough benefits to outweigh the loss of sovereignty that it entails.
This is not a matter for discussion in Britain only. For many in the EU, however, it is a very difficult question to ask, because Europe remains emotionally loaded. Only in Britain could a cabinet minister from the same party that brought the country into the EU call for exiting it. No mainstream German, French, or Spanish politician would dare discuss the matter openly, let alone advocate divorce.
But the question cannot be ignored. In most EU countries, large segments of public opinion are dissatisfied with the Union and increasingly sympathetic to nationalistic appeals. In response, many politicians pay lip service to Europe while emphasizing purely national solutions. This inconsistent – and often simply cynical – stance has mired Europe in an unhappy equilibrium: It cannot move backward, it cannot move forward, and it satisfies no one.