Hannibal Hanschke / Reuters
Two activists with the EU flag and Union Jack painted on their faces kiss each other in front of Brandenburg Gate to protest against British exit from the European Union, in Berlin, Germany, June 19, 2016.
Europe’s Democratic Dysfunction and the False Promise of Referenda
To paraphrase Karl Marx, a specter is haunting Europe this week—the specter of disintegration. The United Kingdom’s referendum on June 23, and the often-vitriolic campaign that has preceded it, has opened Pandora’s box. If the British vote to leave the EU on Thursday, they will kill the illusion that the process of European integration is irreversible. It would further stir the slumbering beast of nationalism in Europe, which reawakened after the Great Recession and the euro crisis. And it will leave Europe’s member states deeply divided over the future path of EU integration.
Undoubtedly, some euro federalists will scream that more Europe is the answer. Meanwhile, nationalists will want to see the whole project disintegrate. France will want to punish the United Kingdom, and Germany will be more cautious and will insist on letting the markets take care of it. Some member states will want to renegotiate their own rules of engagement with the EU, including Poland and the Czech Republic, which have agitated against the union’s refugee policy, but also Denmark and Sweden, which are close trade partners of the United Kingdom and may want a similar deal as the British. The EU’s favored response to most crises—muddling through—will no longer be an option. Even though, undoubtedly, that is what is most likely to happen.
Any outcome short of a decisive victory for the “remain” camp on Thursday will leave the United Kingdom deeply divided and its democracy badly bruised. On the face of it, a referendum on EU membership was not such a bad idea. When Prime Minister David Cameron promised to give the people a say during a much-heralded speech at Bloomberg headquarters in London in January 2013, popular support for European integration was at an all-time low across the continent. Opinion polls showed that the share of EU citizens who were satisfied with democracy in the EU was nearing record lows. A referendum, with a sharp and sensible debate about the pros and cons of EU membership, could have dispelled decades of misinformation about Brussels spouted enthusiastically by the British tabloids. It would have forced the British establishment to make the positive case for European integration, just as it had done in 1975, when a referendum on Europe was won by a resounding ratio of two to one. Cameron thought such a debate could settle the Europe question for a generation.
And so Cameron rolled the dice. But it was a risky gamble; the outcome would be irreversible, as a vote to leave will automatically trigger Article 50 of the EU Treaty of Lisbon and start the divorce process. A close vote to remain will likely see a challenge to Cameron’s leadership and a renewed push to get an even better deal from Brussels. In January 2013, the stakes did not seem as high. In those days, Cameron never imagined that he could win a majority at the next general election, to be held in May 2015. At the time, a referendum on EU membership would be “a nice problem to hav