The prospective of an exit of the UK from the EU has turned from a distant opportunity and a bargain chip into something quite real. It very well may happen that early this summer the EU will lose, for the first time, a member state.
For the EU, this could mark a potential watershed beyond which a much loser agglomeration of states would constitute a weaker union. Also, a less liberal one. There would be a whole range of agreements that have to be annulled, or re-negotiated. The EU also would have to secure its fabric and avoid that other member states also claim special rights for themselves.
For the UK a phase of deep uncertainties would begin. There are no bilateral trade agreements with individual member states of the EU. The future of the City of London would be even more uncertain. And Scotland may finally opt to leave the rest UK.
So would the EU become more consistent without a UK notoriously asking for a special relationship? Or would this indicate the beginning of the end?
Over the last decades, Europe was overwhelmingly considered as a success story – and rightly so. Sure, there were debates and problems, but not on core matters. On the contrary: the end of the east-west conflict, different rounds of enlargement, and the introduction of the Euro established the perception of an ongoing strengthening of Europe. This seems to now be coming to an end.
There are at least four crises where Europe is stumbling: first, the ongoing euro crisis. The referendum in Greece is irrelevant here. When the Greeks do not want to be humiliated, they are free to live by themselves. But the inability of the European agencies to accept their own rules, without bending them, is worrying.
Second, the apparent helplessness regarding waves of migrants moving toward Europe from Africa. Short-term assistance and mid-term signals are confused, and there is no coherent European response. Thirdly, the wavering positions toward an aggressive Russia. The only helpful response – a clear communication of red lines and their enforcement – is missing.
And fourthly, an unconvincing whining about continuing and clear violations of rules and standards by American spy agencies being active in Europe. Because the American nerve will listen to European concerns, a much higher European independence from the US would be the only solution.
In all these cases, the core problem is a confused (or missing) European signalling.