LONDON – “Never let a crisis go to waste” has always been one of the European Union’s guiding principles. But what about five simultaneous crises? Today, the EU faces what Frans Timmermans, European Commission Vice President, describes as a “multi-crisis”: Brexit, refugee flows, fiscal austerity, geopolitical threats from East and South, and “illiberal democracy” in central Europe. Rather than wasting its crises, the EU could be laid to waste by them.
If so, Brexit will be the detonator for that demolition. By legitimizing the concept of an EU breakup, and thus turning a fantasy among political extremists into a realistic option of mainstream politics throughout Europe, Brexit threatens to trigger an irresistible disintegration process. It will also transform economics, by paralyzing the European Central Bank in the next euro crisis: while the ECB can always defeat market speculation, it is powerless against breakup pressures from voters.
The EU therefore urgently needs to put the genie of disintegration back in its bottle. That means persuading Britain to change its mind about Europe, which, according to conventional wisdom on both sides of the English Channel, is impossible. But many “impossible” things are happening in politics nowadays.
The referendum majority on June 23 was much narrower than that in Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum, or the negative votes on EU treaties in Ireland, Denmark, and the Netherlands, all of which were subsequently reversed. More important, the 52% who voted for Brexit were sharply divided in their aims, with some prepared to accept economic sacrifice for a “hard Brexit” (total separation from Europe), and others hoping for a “soft Brexit” that would minimize the impact on the UK economy.