The postwar founding dream for Europe is now a nightmare, its bright vision clouded by gathering storms. Britain’s European Union membership, reluctantly embraced two generations ago, might not last much longer. The so-called Brexit debate, over the possible U.K. departure, could end up breaking another political union, the United Kingdom itself.
The worsening Middle East refugee tragedy has strained the cohesion of E.U. member states, particularly threatening the vision of free passage between those states. The union has been further stressed by the daily struggle to find a workable consensus on how to respond to the crisis.
Another strand of the united Euro-dream, a single currency and market in goods and trade, hobbles along. Optimism is in short supply; despondency is everywhere. The most potent current symbol of the rapidly disintegrating European ideal is the horror of the so-called Jungle camp near Calais, the main French port for traffic between the continental land mass and Britain.
We now know that a referendum on continuing British membership of the European Union could take place much sooner than expected, perhaps as early as June. The Tory government’s official line is to remain part of the European Union, but only after a fundamental renegotiation of the terms of U.K. membership and a commitment from the European Union to far-reaching reforms. There is evidence that other leaders are coming round to the British government’s point of view.
In what looks very like a controlled leak, it is now being suggested that intergovernmental agreement on renewed terms of membership might come before the end of February. This will be the proposal Tories will put to the electorate, although there remains considerable dissent even within Tory party ranks, as a strong euroskeptic faction has influence. The riven Labour Party has its anti-E.U. voices too; Scottish Nationalists in the Commons are solidly pro-Europe.
At least a million people made the dangerous journey from the Middle East into Europe in 2015, and they are still coming. Germany, and Chancellor Angela Merkel personally, received plaudits for a generous initial response to the fleeing people, contrasted especially with the fearful and defensive posture of some other states and the mean-spiritedness of British Tories. But now European states feel stretched to the limit.
Germany has recently suffered communal violence in the shadow of the great cathedral of Cologne, including alleged sexual attacks on women by gangs of migrants. The parliament of Denmark, long a standard-bearer for humanitarian policy and social justice, has just imposed a controversial law allowing police to confiscate asylum-seekers’ assets to offset the cost of their upkeep. The move was condemned by a spokesperson for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, while some human-rights activists have drawn a comparison to the confiscation of goods from Jewish people during the Third Reich. There are fears that other states may follow suit as this winter grows ever chillier for Europe’s refugees.
The future of the passport-free Schengen zone is under threat too, as Europeans question the ease with which migrants, having landed, can cross the continent. That policy stops at the U.K. border; Britain has long had a negotiated exemption from the Schengen Treaty that established this key plank of the European dream. Some migrants have dug in at the Calais migrant camp, where conditions are said to be horrid. A Catholic parish from Essex has been making weekly runs through the channel tunnel in an attempt to bring material and spiritual support, while cross-channel ferry traffic was disrupted recently as over 50 young migrant males managed to board one of the ferries.
If Westminster’s referendum on Europe yields a Brexit vote, the European Union would probably survive, but this outcome might break the British Union. A second Scottish independence referendum looks inevitable in the event of a U.K.-wide vote to leave Europe. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair told French media that an exit vote would lead to Scottish independence. Blair does not influence U.K. public opinion anymore. But he might be right here. Europe is fracturing and could well break the three-century-old British Union. One single vote, either way, might be enough.