Britain's just one corner of a European crisis in which opportunity still lurksby Timothy Garton Ash / November 9, 2018 / Leave a comment
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 “lospread” (that is, the yield spread between Italian and German government bonds). If “lospread” 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…