Brexit is no way out of a Europe in crisis

Brexit is no way out of a Europe in crisis

Gideon Rachman, The Financial Times

In its own interests, Britain must contribute to stability on the European continent

David Cameron should hurry up and hold that referendum on British membership of the EU. If the UK prime minister does not get a move on, there might not be an EU left to leave.

Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, said recently that, unless Europe gets a grip on the migration crisis, “the European project can die, not in decades or years but very fast”. Even allowing for a degree of hyperbole in that statement, there is no doubt that Mr Cameron is negotiating with an organisation that is in grave trouble.

The refugee issue and the threat that it poses to the EU’s border-free Schengen area is the most obvious emergency. But it may not even be the most fundamental problem. The very basis of the European idea is that the EU is a community of democratic, law-governed states. But the independence of the courts and media are clearly under threat in Poland and Hungary, powerful countries that retain full voting rights within the union.

The refugee issue and the threat that it poses to the EU’s border-free Schengen area is the most obvious emergency. But it may not even be the most fundamental problem. The very basis of the European idea is that the EU is a community of democratic, law-governed states. But the independence of the courts and media are clearly under threat in Poland and Hungary, powerful countries that retain full voting rights within the union.The euro crisis has not gone away either and Greece may well need another bailout this summer. Germany remains the only nation capable of giving some leadership to the EU. But the authority of Angela Merkel, its chancellor, has been badly damaged by the refugee crisis. The Merkel government is, anyway, increasingly estranged from eastern Europe over refugees; and from southern Europe over the euro.

Amid all this, Mr Cameron’s demands for minor changes in Britain’s relationship with the EU seem almost bizarrely besides the point. As one German policymaker fumed to me: “The European house is burning down and Britain wants to waste time rearranging the furniture.”

Even more strange is the fact that the British debate about whether to quit the EU (Brexit) seems to have barely factored in the idea that the organisation itself is in crisis. Both sides — pro and anti — are deploying arguments that have hardly changed since the 1990s. The Brexit crowd claims that Europe is proceeding headlong towards a federal state, ignoring the fact that it is in much greater danger of disintegration. The pro-EU camp stresses the virtues of the single market while trying to avert their eyes from the horrible political mess unfolding on the other side of the English Channel.

If the two sides in the Brexit debate were to acknowledge the extent of the EU’s political problems, how might that affect the referendum campaign? It seems much more likely that the image of an EU in crisis would help the Brexit camp. A squabbling, paralysed EU is a much tougher sell than a smoothly functioning success story. But, perhaps paradoxically, the fact Europe is in crisis actually strengthens my own resolve to vote for Britain to stay inside the EU.

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