The United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union has triggered the worst political crisis the EU has ever faced. Since the early 1950s, the EU has steadily expanded, but on June 23, 52 percent of British voters ignored the experts’ warnings of economic misery and opted to leave the bloc. At the annual British Conservative Party conference in October, Prime Minister Theresa May promised to invoke Article 50, which formally begins negotiations and sets a two-year deadline for leaving the EU, by March 2017. Now, given her determination to regain control of immigration and the stiffening resolve of other EU leaders to make an example of the United Kingdom, a so-called hard Brexit—an exit from both the single market and the customs union—is looking increasingly likely. This prospect should lay to rest the once dominant idea that European integration is an irreversible process.
When the United Kingdom leaves, as it almost certainly will, the EU will lose its largest military power, one of its two nuclear weapons states, one of its two veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, its second-largest economy (representing 18 percent of its GDP and 13 percent of its population), and its only truly global financial center. The United Kingdom stands to lose even more. Forty-four percent of British exports go to EU countries; just eight percent of the EU’s exports head to the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom will also face much less favorable terms with the rest of the world when negotiating future trade and investment deals on its own, and British citizens will lose their automatic right to study, live, work, and retire in the 27 other EU member states. What’s more, the process of disentangling the country from 44 years of membership will consume a mind-boggling amount of human and financial resources. But the British people have made their decision, and it would be hard, if not impossible, to reverse course.
For the EU, the timing could not be worse. More than seven years after Hungary and Poland, are rapidly sliding toward illiberal democracy. The refugee crisis has exposed deep divisions across the continent over immigration. Europe seems to be in a perpetual state of crisis. Antiestablishment parties on both the right and the left that question the value of the EU have gained ground, mainly at the expense of centrist Christian democratic and social democratic parties, which have never wavered in their support for further European integration. In the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which established the EU’s predecessor, Europe’s leaders envisioned “an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe.” Six decades on, that notion has never seemed more distant.
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