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Three Paths to European Disintegration

LONDON – For once, Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front, may be correct. She has called the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union the biggest political event in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall. That may turn out to be true: Brexit has destabilized the UK and could end up destroying the EU.

Old-fashioned federalists say the answer to Brexit should be further EU integration. But that response is both far-fetched and dangerous. Germany and France are often at odds, and both have weak leaders facing re-election next year who could scarcely muster support for an “ever-closer union.” And anti-EU sentiment is too widespread and too deep to hand more power to unelected EU officials and impose additional constraints on national decision-making without poisoning the pot further.

True, the immediate post-Brexit turmoil appears to have boosted support for mainstream politicians and the EU; but this is unlikely to last. The Brexit fallout is likely to sap eurozone economic performance and further polarize European politics as voters become more insecure. German dominance of the EU will increase, and so, too, will the anti-German backlash in many countries. With a weak and divided EU unable to resolve Europe’s many crises, and with nationalism resurgent, we can expect further disintegration in different forms.

The most extreme form would be further exits by member states. Leaving the EU once seemed outlandish: no country had ever done it, and only extremists even proposed it. Brexit now makes leaving seem feasible and, to some, reasonable. Already, Geert Wilders, whose far-right Freedom Party is leading in the polls ahead of the Netherlands’ general election next March, is demanding a referendum on EU membership. So, too, is the Danish People’s Party, which is the biggest party in the Danish parliament, but remains out of government.