Could the referendum on British membership of the EU prove largely academic? Could it be overtaken by events? Could we be on the brink not just of Brexit but of the collapse of the Union’s house of cards?
These questions are worth asking because the crises in Brussels seem to multiply by the day. Greek bailouts and the attendant Eurozone crisis may have slipped from the headlines, but the fundamentals are still grim among the recession-plagued, debt-laden countries of southern Europe. A slowdown in global growth, sparked by the prospect of a slump in China, could readily bring the perils of a one-size-fits-all currency back into play. Then there is the migration crisis, now the most potent danger facing the 28-member European bloc. Last, and probably least in the chancelleries of Europe, is the British problem, the possibility that the EU could lose its second biggest economy and its most significant military and diplomatic power.
Europe’s leaders coped with the Greek crisis by kicking the can further down the road, bailing out the Greek treasury and its bankrupt banks with oceans of German cash. It was a problem deferred, not a problem solved. Equally, they have little idea of what to do about the millions of Muslim economic migrants and refugees fleeing the Middle East. All they do know is that they are in deep trouble.
So much so that the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has told the BBC that the Middle East exodus, to which there is no end in sight, could spell the break-up of the EU. As EU interior ministers, including our very own Theresa May, prepared to meet today to discuss suspending for two years the Schengen agreement, the 26-country border-free travel zone dating back to the mid-1980s, Valls issued an apocalyptic warning:
“It’s Europe that could die, not the Schengen area. If Europe can’t protect its own borders, it’s the very idea of Europe that could be thrown into doubt. It could disappear, of course, the European project.”
Valls is not wrong. Hard-wired into the DNA of Europe’s leaders is the idea that the answer to every challenge is more Europe, not less. But this time they might just seek solace in less. Ever since Angela Merkel’s catastrophic decision to throw open Germany’s borders – and by extension the whole of the EU’s including Britain’s – to countless millions of people, mostly Muslims, from countries wracked by war and poverty, the EU’s impotence in the face of external threats has been fully exposed.
A genuine superstate – a country such as the USA or China – would have responded to mass invasion by people with no understanding of or sympathy with its civilisation or values by firm action. Navies and troops would have been deployed to break up the people-smuggling gangs, return the boats to whence they came and divert would-be migrants and refugees to camps in the region. Not so the EU, a Potemkin superstate, one without a military and without any form of clear and decisive leadership.
The EU is an empire of sorts, but one that lacks the kind of central authority to deal with the tumult of events. It lacks the economic and fiscal authority required to handle financial shocks and it lacks the political authority to deal with geopolitical upheavals such as the turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa.
A decision to suspend Schengen for two years – which is tantamount to scrapping it – would, as Valls suggested, be a grievous blow to the EU’s pretensions to evolve into a superstate to rival the US, China, and, in its shrunken but still menacing form, Russia. It would be like Texas setting up passport controls on its border with Oklahoma. It would be a public confession that the dream of “ever closer union” is just that – a dream.
If the EU resembles anything, it is not the USA, with its common language, identity, culture, currency, political and legal system, and military. It is not even like the centralised authority of the Roman Empire. Instead, it is like the enfeebled collection of disputatious kingdoms that made up Europe’s Holy Roman Empire until it was put out of its misery by Napoleon.
Imagine a slightly different referendum question. Would Britain vote to join such a shambles? Then why don’t we vote to leave?