European history may be about to go into reverse.
If Britain votes to leave the EU, it will likely start a process of fragmentation of the political and security structures on which the post-Second World War and Cold War European order was built.
Even if the British step back from the brink on Thursday, the bruising legacy of the debate, the growing trend of national referendums on EU issues, and the backlash against globalisation and internationalized elites on both sides of the Atlantic will not fade away any time soon.
How far and how fast contagion may spread in case of a Brexit vote, no one can know. Just don’t expect it to stop with one major country walking away from the EU.
European Council president Donald Tusk, a historian and former Polish prime minister who took part in the struggle to overthrow Soviet-imposed communist rule in eastern Europe and join the EU, was both a witness and an actor in that history.
Tusk, who knows from personal experience what it means to be on the wrong side of a wall or border, has warned: “Brexit could be the beginning of the destruction not only of the EU but also of Western political civilisation in its entirety.”
He is equally aware that if British Prime Minister David Cameron succeeds in turning public opinion in the final days and winning the referendum, his tactics of demanding a renegotiation of EU membership terms using a plebiscite as leverage are bound to tempt politicians in other countries.
In private, there is anger at Cameron among EU leaders and diplomats who feel he has played Russian roulette with Europe’s future in a failed bid to end civil war in his own party.
In case of a Brexit, Germany and France will work to shore up the remaining EU and put forward new projects in security and defence. But their lack of agreement on how to strengthen the eurozone — and the prospect of anti-EU populists gaining in elections in those countries next year — makes any big integration initiative impossible for now.
The forces of European disintegration are on the rise in many countries, fuelled by economic discontent, fear of job losses to foreign competition or to immigrants, and the anxieties of ageing societies.
Eurosceptics in the Netherlands forced a referendum in April on an EU agreement on closer ties with Ukraine via a petition and mobilised just enough voters to make the no vote valid, leaving the Dutch and EU authorities with a legal conundrum.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who boasts of having established an “illiberal democracy”, is planning a public vote in October to defy EU rules obliging member states to share the burden of taking in refugees flooding into Greece and Italy.
And a eurosceptic rightist failed by a whisker to win Austria’s presidential election last month, surfing a wave of hostility to migrants and defiance of “Brussels”.
The latest Pew Research Centre survey of European attitudes shows public support for the EU has plunged across Europe, with the steepest fall in France, where only 38% have a favourable view of the EU, six points fewer than in Britain.
Such findings do not necessarily indicate that other countries are likely to leave the bloc. Ironically support for the EU is strongest in Poland and Hungary, which are major beneficiaries of funds from Brussels but have two of Europe’s most eurosceptic governments.
But public hostility to sharing risks — financial, humanitarian, or geopolitical — had gained ground around Europe even before the British vote, widening north-south and east-west gaps within the EU.
“In a sense, the populists have already won, because they are setting the agenda for the mainstream parties,” said Heather Grabbe, of the European University Institute in Florence.
Among those most alarmed are strategists in the US and at Nato, convinced a British vote to leave the EU would weaken the unity of the West and its resolve to tackle security challenges.
“The project of European construction that began in the aftermath of the Second World War and that has done so much to ensure that Europe did not again become a venue of instability and violence would be further endangered,” said Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations in the US and a former state department policy planner.
Writing in The American Interest magazine, Haas noted that for US strategists, the continent that sparked two world wars had become “boring” after the end of Cold War.
Brexit alone would not make Europe that much more interesting, he said, but it would contribute to the slow unravelling of a stable European order, leaving both the EU and the UK “weaker and more divided”.
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