LONDON – The European Union has never been very popular in Britain. It joined late, and its voters will be asked on June 23 whether they want to leave early. The referendum’s outcome will not be legally binding on the government; but it is inconceivable that Britain will stay if the public’s verdict is to quit.
Over the years, the focus of the British debate about Europe has shifted. In the 1960s and 1970s, the question was whether Britain could afford not to join what was then the European Economic Community. The fear was that the United Kingdom would be shut out of the world’s fastest-growing market, and that its partnership with the United States would be at risk as well: The Western alliance would consist of two pillars, and Europe, not a shrunken Britain, would be one of them.
Today, it is the enfeeblement, not power, of Europe, that drives the UK debate. The British perceive themselves as doing rather well, whereas Europe is doing badly. Indeed, ever since the 2008 crash, the EU has been identified with failure. Outside Britain and Germany, there has been almost no economic growth. It cannot defend its frontiers against terrorists (“Europe is not safe,” proclaims Donald Trump). Its institutions lack legitimacy. Made up of 28 quasi-sovereign members, it cannot act, but only issue intentions to act. No wonder there is a move afoot to reclaim national sovereignty, where some decision-making power still resides.
The EU’s fate has become hopelessly entangled with that of its most vulnerable feature: the 19-member eurozone, the single-currency heartland of economic stagnation. To officials in Brussels, the eurozone is the EU. Only Britain and Denmark have been allowed to opt out. The other members, including Sweden, are expected to join when they meet the criteria. The eurozone was to be the engine of political union. But the engine has stalled.