In two days’ time, the British people will cast their vote in the long-awaited ‘Brexit’ referendum. Whatever the outcome, their decision is certain to resonate throughout the European Union. It begs the question: why should it be up to the British people alone whether or not the United Kingdom remains in the EU?
Dear Prime Minister, dear David Cameron,
I have been following the Brexit debate with anxious interest. Europe stands at the abyss, and the vote on Thursday will determine its next step. But with so much at stake, there’s something that’s been bugging me for weeks: why don’t I get to vote on Brexit?
On the face of it, the answer is obvious. I have a German passport, and I live in Amsterdam. End of story.
But is it really that simple? Compare the link between your country and the rest of the EU to a marriage, and you will see that it’s not at all obvious that I, and the rest of the EU’s non-Brits, don’t deserve a say.
Imagine that, God forbid, my marriage would hit a rough patch and my wife would tell me that she’d fallen out of love with me ages ago — indeed, that she had never truly loved me at all. For the future, the best I could hope for would be her wavering on our relationship. Major strides forward would clearly not be on the cards. No romantic holidays on the beach, no building families or houses together.
It is hard to imagine an EU much weaker and more on the defensive than the one we have right now
In that situation, however deep my affection, I should call it quits. I should face the facts and acknowledge that with a ‘maybe yes, maybe no’ attitude, she’s already failed to meet the minimum requirement for a healthy relationship: serious commitment and faith in building a common future together. It might break my heart, but for my own sake, I should file for divorce.
Peering over the channel to follow the current British travails, I cannot help feeling that the EU should do the same. Just as there is a Brexit vote about Britain's commitment, should there not be a Rexit vote about how the rest of the EU feel about all this?
Tune in to dark-suited officials, whether from Brussels or national capitals on the Continent, and we hear the same refrain over and over: ‘Don't leave, the EU would be weak without you. (And you’d unleash a catastrophic avalanche of Euroscepticism.)’ Neither are convincing arguments.
Disaffection with the EU is at historic highs, not only in your country. It is hard to imagine an EU much weaker and more on the defensive than the one we have right now. Anyone who cares about the EU’s future — and I would put myself in that camp — should not defend the status quo but cry out for change and for policies that will at long last take citizens and their concerns seriously. As a free market project, the EU has accentuated the cleavage between winners and losers of economic competition. The ill-conceived single currency has done the same. Counterbalancing initiatives for a social Europe have largely remained toothless — not for the least part due to British obstinacy.
The real threat to the European project is not potential Brexit but European inability to take the bold steps that will be necessary to mend its broken economic governance. If it is to survive, the single currency will need stronger political and redistributive props. It will require much deeper democratic legitimitacy through the European parliament — the kind of sovereignty transfer that is so dreaded in the UK. All these reforms ask for a leap of faith, a commitment to make the union whole. They ask for the opposite of the grudging veto player that your country will be if Remain wins by anything but a landslide.
What about the feared cascade of Euroscepticism? That, too, is based on the naive and dangerous idea that in principle, the EU is in good shape. That Euroscepticism all over the continent will blow over by itself. Rather than praying that the UK doesn’t rock the boat too much and otherwise stay the course, European elites should make re-engaging citizens their top priority. If that means killing some of Brussels’ political darlings — TTIP comes to mind — then so be it.
European elites should make re-engaging citizens their top priority
In any case, the defensive stance of Europeanists, who beg member states to stick to the project, is a depressing sight. An EU with more balanced policies and a real say for citizens should be a source of pride. Countries that dislike EU membership shouldn’t be implored to stay; instead they should pack their bags and go. If Leave were to win, I would be happy to let the other 27 members watch the fallout and then ask each of them, one by one: are you sure you want to stay, or do you want to follow Britain’s path?
About six months ago, I told my British friends that the UK should make up its mind, and that if it really wanted to leave, then it should. Today, I feel that it's the other way around. If Britain had serious enthusiasm for the European project, it should stay; otherwise, the EU might be better off without it. By the looks of it, it will fail that last test. With a wafer-thin Remain win, which looks likely at this point, the UK will cement the deeply deficient status quo in Europe. This deadlock will drain energy from the European project until even the most ardent supporters of building a better, more social continent together — like myself — lose faith.
I realise that I don’t get to cast a vote on Thursday. But if I could, I would be tempted to vote ‘leave’. For the sake of the European project.