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How much of a threat does the “Brexit” referendum pose for the European Union?

Following the announcement of the so-called “Brexit” referendum on 20 February 2016 journalists and bloggers have discussed the “ins” and “outs” of EU membership, focusing on the arguments for and against, on interpreting the polls, and on reflecting on the success of the Leave and Remain camps during the first weeks of the pre-campaign period. Subject to fewer column inches, however, are the implications of the 23 June 2016 referendum for the EU and the future of European integration. What, then, might those implications be?

First, it is clear that the referendum reinforces the perception of a European Union in crisis. It presents this crisis as being of an existential order. The cumulative effect of the Euro crisis, the refugee crisis, the perennial EU’s legitimacy crisis and the “rule of law” crisis (affecting Hungary and Poland) presents an image of the EU as a body that cannot solve its own problems, and which seems unable within its own territory to defend its core liberal-democratic values, as European states seeming to shift ever more towards chaos and illiberalism often taking the form of socio-economic protectionism and political introversion.

Second, the referendum would seem to offer encouragement to other member states that might view the UK decision as a kind of a model. An increasing number of EU states are now lead by Eurosceptic governments, or have witnessed an increase in support for Eurosceptic parties. While other EU referendums have been held on treaty revisions and other policy matters, the UK referendum sets a precedent as an in-out referendum. A worst-case scenario may be that this creates a domino effect as political leaders across Europe reflect on whether it is also time for them to renegotiate, or even reconsider their country’s EU membership.

Third, the referendum is informed by the new British settlement in the EU which, amongst other things, promises treaty change to accommodate the UK’s national interests and allows the UK to not be committed to “the ever closer union of the peoples of Europe,” a principle that has governed European integration since its inception. This approach to accommodate national preferences through exceptionalism, enhances the dynamic of integration “à la carte,” which will lead to a more flexible but less cohesive European Union while offering incentives for member states to focus on short-term political interests rather than long-term common European challenges and solutions.

Fourth, the referendum weakens the EU’s international standing and the confidence that non-EU states have in the EU. Viewed from China, India and the United States, for example, the absence of European solidarity exemplified by the Brexit referendum suggests a weak and divided Europe which is in decline, if not disintegrating. For the first time (setting aside the Greenland, Algeria and Saint Barthélémy experiences), the EU could shrink in size, a prospect which goes against conventional wisdoms that see progress in the EU bound up with forward steps in integration and enlargement. It is hard to see the EU taken seriously in matters of global economy and politics under these circumstances as shifts of these order are likely to demand a period of introspection during which the nature of European integration is rethought. The prospect of global EU leadership on issues ranging from environmental protection to the exchange of anti-terrorist intelligence seems unlikely.

Fifth, the referendum both threatens and offers hope for regional actors pushing for further devolution or even independence. It is a threat because it demonstrates how regional interests might be undermined in a “national” referendum, where a minority view on membership might be squeezed out. During the British renegotiation and current campaign, EU membership has been presented as a matter for central government to determine exclusively. It could offer some hope, however, for supporters of secession, who look at the Scottish debate and the possibility of another independence referendum should Scotland vote to stay but the rest of the UK to leave, as an example of how an in-out referendum might strengthen their independence narrative.

In all the issues raised above, the UK referendum alone does not make or break the European Union. It is not even likely to be a final nail in its coffin. However, it does exacerbate and reinforce existing trends and challenges facing the European Union today. It is the cumulative effect of these trends that may pose for the EU an existential threat. The inability of the EU to manage successfully the refugee crisis; the negative socio-economic effects of the measures imposed on some countries to address the financial crisis in the Eurozone; an enhanced nationalism and self-referential political discourse as citizens express their disaffection with an elite-driven European project, are all compounded by the announcement to hold an in/out referendum in the UK.

Image credit: “European Union” by Yukiko Matsuoka, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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