Europe Hurts if Britain Goes. It's Worse if Britain Stays.

After a brush with disintegration, the union could end up paralyzed, without a unifying idea.

After the vote, what?

Photographer: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

U.K. polls have swung toward an "in" vote since the murder of parliament member Jo Cox, a predictable shift toward stability. It may be time to switch from imagining post-Brexit dystopias to picturing a Europe with the U.K. still in it. That's almost an equally worrying sight, given what some of the EU's top officials and former architects say about European integration these days.

You'd never expect euroskepticism from Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president who, in the early 2000s, watched over the drafting of a European Constitution, which was approved by EU heads of state in 2004 and even by some countries' voters, but killed after France and the Netherlands rejected it in referendums in 2005. The EU's current framework, the Treaty of Lisbon -- whose Article 50 would have served as the legal basis for Brexit -- is in part based on that strong federalist document. Yet Giscard now says the EU-28 is "ungovernable."  

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"Europe has no purpose anymore," he has also said. "Before, we had goals: establish peace, develop a foreign policy power, create a monetary union… Today, we are unable to say what the actual goal of the project is."

Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, is one of the EU hierarchy's most powerful figures, but he doesn't have much time for the united Europe dream either. "It is us who today are responsible for confronting reality with all kinds of utopias," he said recently. "A utopia of Europe without nation states, a utopia of Europe without conflicting interests and ambitions. We failed to notice that ordinary people, the citizens of Europe, do not share our euroenthusiasm." And he added: "The specter of a breakup is haunting Europe, and the vision of a federation doesn't seem to me like the best answer to it."

Hubert Vedrine, who, as diplomatic adviser to President Francois Mitterrand, his chief of staff and later French foreign minister, was privy to the EU's founding efforts, is an especially harsh critic of the federalist ideology, that "paternalistic and authoritarian catechism" of ever closer union. Those dreams have clashed with reality, according to Vedrine, and they have crashed. The EU, the former minister argues, should concentrate on stimulating research, innovation, education, environmental initiatives. Enough "autistic sermonizing" about less national sovereignty, enough "regulatory bulimia," let there be a minimalist consensus among countries with widely diverging interests.

All these thoughts must have existed in European politicians' heads before the Brexit campaign, but it has clearly catalyzed them and forced the discussion of a pause in union-building and expansion, a focus on solving real-life problems more efficiently, a reform that would endear the EU to euroskeptics.

The much-maligned European idealists, however, got a thing or two right. When a process that was meant to lead to a confederation -- rather than a close-knit federation of states -- is paused, the risk is that it will begin to unravel. 

If the U.K. votes to remain, the "out" voters won't immediately change their minds about the EU. Their views will exert enough pressure on the U.K. government not to do anything that might strengthen the union. 

Giscard blames the U.K. for the bloc's current difficulties, saying it had advocated the bloc's expansion without changing its governance system; as a result, the EU has 28 commissioners -- an unwieldy, inefficient common "government." It would make sense to shrink the bureaucracy, but the U.K. won't be pushing for any reforms that reduce national representation. Other countries' governments, mindful of the growing electoral clout of anti-EU parties, will also find it difficult to back changes that would make the EU more efficient and better at problem-solving because that would, of necessity, mean giving up more national sovereignty to it.

If before the Brexit campaign the EU was often criticized for its paralysis and its messy attempts at consensus-building, a post-Brexit Europe of scared politicians and demoralized bureaucrats will be an even more fetid quagmire. If reform is only possible to weaken the union, putting all reform on hold will weaken it too, as countries claw back their sovereign powers and ignore the EU's powers under existing treaties. Tusk's political enemies currently in power in his country, Poland, won't be scared of European censure as they tighten the screws on courts and state media. Countries unable to keep down their budget deficits won't feel any need to beg Brussels for an exemption -- the EU will be so eager to keep everyone in that exerting any power will only be counterproductive.

The U.K.'s decision to remain in the EU may start an era of cowardice and pandering to right-wingers who make no effort to understand what the EU is and what it's for simply because they feel no need for any kind of union.

The emergence of this more fearful EU would be another fudge that kicks a problem down the road without resolving it. Only this time, it would be an existential fudge.

David Cameron's government doesn't have any proposals on EU reform that would make the union more popular with "out" voters. Nor do France, Germany or the EU bureaucracy. The post-Bremain EU would be out of ideas, unable to agree on the end goal of which even Giscard has now lost sight. This is almost worse than a post-Brexit situation in which jilted continental leaders could be both vindictive toward a renegade U.K. and eager to prove that it made the wrong decision. The latter, if not the former, could boost cohesion and stimulate thought. If the U.K. votes to stay, there will be no such incentive -- just a fleeting sense of relief.

EU leaders shouldn't waste the crisis. If the U.K. chooses to stay, they should think about "re-founding" the union anyway, perhaps to make it more democratic; if nothing else is possible, at least to narrow its powers to areas where the member states can easily agree and work together, as Vedrine suggested. Leaving the structure and framework of the union as they are, putting them on hold is a path toward breakup.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at

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