What If: The European Union Fell Apart?

By Poppy Prescott

Eurosceptic movements have been gaining momentum all over Europe. This culminated in Britain when the British public voted to leave the European Union last June. It leaves a problematic question for many citizens in EU member states: What if it happens here too?

Dr. Anthony Zito, a professor of European Public Policy at Newcastle University sheds light on this question.

With the rise of right-wing populist parties in Europe, some allege the EU is under existential threat. Anti-European sentiment often derives from a collective dissatisfaction with the current state. In these cases, right wing parties are using nationalist rhetoric to displace blame on to the EU. While this may be a contributing factor to the disintegration of the EU, Zito argues it is not the only one: “There are at least three big dynamics at work, and they interact.  First, the wider public in the West is losing its faith in elites, particularly political elites. This is affecting all political systems, and the EU is especially vulnerable to this dynamic as it provides few things (e.g. health care) that are directly tangible to the citizenry.  Second, a large portion of the Western population, including in Europe, are feeling left out of whatever economic prosperity and growth exists.  Third and finally, the EU has faced several intractable crises (Euro crisis, migration) where the ability of the EU to deal with urgent and pending crises is easy to question.”

This raises an important question: What are the logical reasons for an EU member state to leave? These concerns are not to be ignored and neither are the challenges the ‘reactionary’ forces represent. Zito talks of two essential reasons for exiting from the EU but “they are both illusions. First is that there is a different, better alternative elsewhere.  People generally point to growing markets in China and India, but beyond the fact of their growth, why these markets would prove to be more beneficial to the European states remains a hypothetical argument. Second, there is a desire to believe that the end of the EU will grant countries and their populations more control of their lives. However, if the global economic crisis, climate change, etc. teach us one thing, it is that states no longer (even if they actually did before) have the ability to control their own destiny”. Exiting the EU is unknown territory. This can be seen in the aftermath of Brexit, in which negotiations are going on in all stretches of the event with little to show for it. Conflicts within the British government, the opposition and public are evidence of an attempt to ‘take back control’ turning sour.

“There is a desire to believe that the end of the EU will grant countries and their populations more control of their lives”

There is a lack of European identity in these circumstances. The European Union community, as Zito puts it, has “two dimensions […] and they are related. First, there are the legal/institutional arrangements, signed with treaties that have created the Single Market, the EU institutions and so forth.  These form separate entity from the idea of community which can only grow when the European peoples stop seeing each other as foreigners and start to recognise what they have in common.  The hope of the founders of European integration was that the first set of arrangements would create the second sense of community.” If the EU were to fall apart, any sense of European identity may follow.

Some countries would suffer more than others, despite negative impacts for all. Zito predicts: “All of the states would suffer significantly, but the poorer states, particularly ones without long traditions of democratic government, will suffer more. Indeed in those countries there is a potential for the democratic regimes to fail and to be replace with more authoritarian ones.  Democratic states do not tend to go to war with other democratic states, but authoritarian states are a different matter”. Many Europeans know from a long and shared history of conflict where the destination of such a path leads; war.

This being an unthinkable route for many European politicians, progressive parties are making alliances all over Europe. In the run up to the referendum in the UK, members of the left and right worked together across party lines in attempt to defeat the Leave campaign. In May, Emmanuel Macron was elected prime minister with an ardently pro-Europe campaign, defeating Marine Le Pen and her ‘Frexit’. In Germany, there are talks of the Green party, the CDU and the Liberal FDP forming a coalition to keep euro-sceptics from powerful positions within government. For how long such coalitions stay stable remains to be seen. A far-right nationalist element exists in most countries, but when put to the test at the ballot box they rarely exceed 15 – 25% of the vote.

Zito argues: “The EU will survive this time of crisis because the alternatives are not attractive to the majority of the populations in the older EU member states.  They will push certain integration further, but other states may over time have less of a degree of commitment to this further integration, with the extreme example being the UK. The UK will be officially out of the EU but continue to be shaped by what happens in it.  This is the reality of a multi-track integration process where the EU states may not go at the same pace, pursue the same path or end up at the same destination, but with an overarching community remaining.”

“The Eu will survive this time of crisis…”

There is a myriad of possible scenarios where borders are re-erected, freedom of movement is curtailed, regional economies are forced into conflict rather than co-operation; and the entire social and economic fabric which has underpinned Europe’s success over the past six decades starts to unravel. For those asking: ‘What if it happens here too?’ it is hard to imagine life without the EU. It seems as though there would be logical reasons for its disintegration, or at least enough powerful people saying there is, right up until the moment it would be destroyed. But the EU is only as united as its citizens are.