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Pulling back from the brink

Brexit is only one corner of a fracturing Europe. But it’s not too late for a country—or a continent—to change direction

Pulling back from the brink

Brexit is only one corner of a fracturing Europe. But it’s not too late for a country—or a continent—to change direction

What do they know of Brexit who only Brexit know? As we in Britain interminably “bang on about Europe,” to recall what David Cameron said he didn’t want Conservatives to do, we are also viewing the continent through a very narrow and distorting British lens. There is scant sense here that our referendum vote was itself a very European phenomenon and just one corner of a wider crisis of the European project. We obsess about the potential impact of different kinds of Brexit on Britain, and think less, if at all, about the consequences for Europe as a whole. Yet Brexit could punch a dangerous hole beneath the waterline of the good ship Europa, while a late step back from the brink could be a pivotal moment in Europe’s recovery. A second referendum choice to stay on board could give the EU a much-needed boost, and, in time, contribute to transforming it into the Union we all need to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

For years, universities have offered classes on European integration; now, we host lectures on European disintegration. Today’s Union is simultaneously fractured along two lines—north-south and east-west. The first fault line is created by problems of political economy. Italy, with its populist government locked in budgetary battle with Brussels, is demonstrating that the fundamental design flaws of the eurozone have still not been addressed. A few years ago Romano Prodi, a former European commission president and Italian prime minister, told me—with an eloquent spread of his hands— that his country seemed to be governed by “lo spread” (that is, the yield spread between Italian and German government bonds). If “lo spread” widens to create a crisis of confidence, the Italian economy may prove too big to fail but also too big to save.

The east-west fault line involves a challenge to fundamental European values. Jean Monnet once said that “a dictatorship… cannot exist in the [European] Community.” Hungary under the regime of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party is not a fully-fledged dictatorship, but it is certainly no longer a liberal, pluralist democracy. Poland’s populist nationalist government is also, albeit against more resistance, eroding the checks and balances of a still fragile young democracy. One reason the EU’s response to the Hungarian outrage has not been stronger is that the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) grouping in the European Parliament cannot bring itself to relinquish the votes of its Fidesz members, even though Fidesz is flagrantly violating the EPP’s own proclaimed values. The very mechanism that was supposed to democratise the EU—pan-European parties, such as the EPP, with their Spitzenkandidaten (lead candidates) for the Commission presidency—has undermined its readiness to defend democracy inside a member state.

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In Prospect’s December issue: Timothy Garton Ash and David Allen Green assess Brexit and ask whether it’s too late for things to change. Garton Ash explains how Brexit is just one part of a fracturing Europe and that it might not be too late for the UK’s situation—or that of the rest of Europe—to change. Green takes apart the “shambolic” way that Britain has approached Brexit and suggests a number of options that parliament should strongly consider if minister are to change their views. Elsewhere in the issue: Jo Glanville visits a rural GP surgery and exposes the crises that are played out day-in-day-out all over the country. Stephen Phelan suggests that Spain’s decision to exhume General Franco’s remains threatens to disturb more than his bones. Martin Rees writes about our dreams of understanding the entire universe—and how we may never be able to satisfy that desire.