Thomas Raines
Research Fellow and Programme Manager, Europe Programme
What is at stake in this referendum is not just Britain’s membership of the EU, but something much larger: whether the EU is still a model for the future of international cooperation.
Flags of the European Union. Photo by Getty Images.Flags of the European Union. Photo by Getty Images.

The political history of post-war Europe has moved steadily in one direction: towards greater cooperation and integration among European nation-states. If Britain votes to leave the European Union, it will be not just a turning point for Britain but a rupture for Europe. The consequences of reversing that arrow of integration, of unpicking the hitherto irreversible character of the EU, cannot be fully known. But the risks for the rest of Europe – and for the most advanced experiment in supranational government and intergovernmental cooperation in the history of the modern world – should not be underestimated.

The temptation is to see Britain and its debate as distinct. The UK is regarded as the awkward partner in the European marriage, jealously guarding its sovereignty. There is some truth in this. Britain’s membership began not as an effort at political reconciliation but at economic rejuvenation. It did not join at the founding of the EEC but rather once much of the initial institutional and market design had been completed, and it lies outside the euro and Schengen areas. Successive British governments have through EU membership sought practical economic and political cooperation for mutual benefit, not integration into a post-modern political order. 

This British view of the EU is still sometimes presented by the few remaining federalists as a heresy from the European ideal. But today’s EU, which successive British governments have helped to build and design, is as much Britain’s as it is any other member state's. The UK has been a member as long or longer than any other state, save the original six. British governments helped drive forward the single market and the enlargement of the union, have been instrumental in climate and energy policy and centrally involved in foreign and security policy. Britain is one country among 28, but it is also 15 per cent of the European economy, and an eighth of its population. 

What is happening in Britain is not purely driven by distinctive British scepticism, stubbornness or eccentricity, as some pro-Europeans on the continent may take comfort in believing (although there certainly is some of that). Rather, what is happening is more profound and driven by the political and economic transformation of modern European societies, and the way this has corroded traditional conceptions of identity and community. The appeal of the Leave campaign’s care-free simplicity – ‘take control’ – and the issues which have driven it – immigration, other sovereignty concerns and the budgetary cost of membership – should worry leaders in many EU countries which are ripe for similarly eurosceptic messages. Treating a vote to leave as a purely British matter would be a mistake. Many in Brussels, as in Britain, will wince at the rhetoric of some Leave campaigners, the reactionary nativism packaged as common sense. What they should also see is a template which is being copied by sceptics and agitators across the continent.  

There are implications of this for both a Leave or a Remain vote. If there is a leave vote, many leaders across Europe will seek to ensure that the UK does not depart on overly favourable terms. These leaders do not wish to create a blueprint for the unravelling of the EU. The withdrawal negotiations will be difficult and uncharitable. The narrow economic logic of the Leavers – that a trade deficit means the EU needs Britain more than the other way round – will be overwhelmed by the political incentive to hold the forces of fragmentation at bay.

If, however, there is a vote to remain, the EU’s leaders across its institutions and states must still recognize the fundamental challenges it faces among much of the European public. The EU must be flexible enough to embrace a member state whose commitment to ever closer union is no longer even rhetorical. It must recognize that freedom of movement in the EU may be a right of EU citizens and a fundamental principle of the market, but it is also a cause of friction and tension, and more must be done to support states in managing its effects. It should recognize the reality of being a multi-currency union.

For many in Europe, the EU is still a symbol – of a determination to transcend a history of continental war and division and to bind Europeans together to resolve differences collectively. But the EU is also a system: a way to manage the shared challenges of the global economy in which Europe is inevitably a falling share and in which the threats to collective security are multitude. What is at stake in this referendum is not just Britain’s membership of the EU, but something much larger: whether the EU as a system can still be a model for the future of international cooperation, as its most ardent supporters always believed, or whether this political experiment, to build on a painful past and manage an uncertain future through regional political integration, will be unable to overcome its inherent political tensions. Brexit may unleash the forces which will make the latter a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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