Britain’s Point of No Return

Europe’s Democratic Dysfunction and the False Promise of Referenda

The Palace of Culture and Science is illuminated in Union Jack colors by Warsaw's capital authorities in support of Britain staying in the EU, in Warsaw, Poland June 22, 2016. Kacper Pempel / Reuters

To paraphrase Karl Marx, a specter is haunting Europe this week—the specter of disintegration. The United Kingdom’s referendum on June 23, and the often-vitriolic campaign that has preceded it, has opened Pandora’s box. If the British vote to leave the EU on Thursday, they will kill the illusion that the process of European integration is irreversible. It would further stir the slumbering beast of nationalism in Europe, which reawakened after the Great Recession and the euro crisis. And it will leave Europe’s member states deeply divided over the future path of EU integration.

Undoubtedly, some euro federalists will scream that more Europe is the answer. Meanwhile, nationalists will want to see the whole project disintegrate. France will want to punish the United Kingdom, and Germany will be more cautious and will insist on letting the markets take care of it. Some member states will want to renegotiate their own rules of engagement with the EU, including Poland and the Czech Republic, which have agitated against the union’s refugee policy, but also Denmark and Sweden, which are close trade partners of the United Kingdom and may want a similar deal as the British. The EU’s favored response to most crises—muddling through—will no longer be an option. Even though, undoubtedly, that is what is most likely to happen.

Any outcome short of a decisive victory for the “remain” camp on Thursday will leave the United Kingdom deeply divided and its democracy badly bruised. On the face of it, a referendum on EU membership was not such a bad idea. When Prime Minister David Cameron promised to give the people a say during a much-heralded speech at Bloomberg headquarters in London in January 2013, popular support for European integration was at an all-time low across the continent. Opinion polls showed that the share of EU citizens who were satisfied with democracy in the EU was nearing record lows. A referendum, with a sharp and sensible debate about the

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