Many Europeans feel trapped. Leading up to Brexit, then-Prime Minister David Cameron of the UK felt certain British voters would vote against EU membership in the referendum in June 2016. In the wake of the shocking Leave victory, pundits and analysts have quickly leapt to predict a wave of EU exits, including the Netherlands and France, both of which have leadership elections this year. When Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte found victory in elections earlier this year, the story shifted to one of triumphant Europhilia, even as anti-Islam candidate Geert Wilders’ party came in a strong second-place finish in the Dutch plurality system.
Nowhere is this cognitive dissonance between anti-EU policy and pro-EU sentiment more apparent than in France, currently amid its own presidential election cycle. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen currently leads the polls against Independent (former-Socialist) Emmanuel Macron and Conservative Francois Fillon. Le Pen’s platform explicitly calls for France to have a Brexit-style referendum on EU membership—a stance supported by many French citizens. However, 67 percent of French citizens would vote in the referendum to remain in the EU, according to Reuters as shown by post-Brexit polling. This may seem deeply contradictory, bordering upon incoherence. However, this seemingly paradoxical sentiment seems to reflect citizens upset with the status quo of Europe, without necessarily wanting to trash the European Project.
According to the Pew Research Center, citizens in EU member countries feel the governing structures do not represent them, their views, or their interests. The Pew survey found that this disquiet appeared regardless of the country’s relative power within the EU. Germans and Greeks felt the same way about the EU approximately 70 percent of the time. Yet, at the same time, these citizens consider the EU more favorably than those polled in 2014. Throughout European countries, this places voters in an awkward position. Politicians ask them to either accept the EU as is, without significant reform, or to abandon it entirely. However, the Pew poll found citizens just want to return some powers to national governments while continuing the common project.
The disintegration of Europe would obviously have effects on other areas of the world. Trade agreements in process, such as TTIP, a proposed agreement which would link the economies of the EU and United States, would be thrown into disarray. However, as British hopes of a U.S.-UK trade deal show, this may ultimately serve to hasten the ties between the European bloc and the United States. Breakdowns in NAFTA in North America, an active free trade zone encompassing Canada, Mexico, and the United States, could also signal a push towards bilateral trade deals between interested countries.
Whether the EU can stay together will likely depend greatly on the outcomes of many European elections. Should the EU maintain its sense of European identity, it will likely survive a few border countries deciding to leave. However, if founding members such as France, Germany, or Italy decide the union has had its day, the EU will likely go the way of the Holy Roman Empire.