Brexocalypse

If U.K. Votes Brexit, Frexit and Italexit Could Follow

Whether British voters choose on Thursday to leave the EU or not, the union is already fractured.

ROME — Most people know what it feels like to stay in a relationship too long. What were once small annoyances become huge fights as patience wears thin. And before you know it promises are being broken and doors (or in this case borders) are slamming shut.

That’s kind of how the European Union is behaving right now, or at least that’s what recent polls suggest when it comes to the question of whether or not British voters should vote to stay in the European Union on Thursday. It’s as if Europe is saying to the U.K., “OK, then, just go… But if you go, don’t come back!”

And if the U.K. does vote to divorce itself from Europe on Thursday, there is no telling just how nasty the final settlement might be, or even how many other countries are going to follow the U.K.’s lead and try to get out, too.

Countries like Sweden are already contemplating a referendum of their own if the U.K. votes to bail. One might envision years of “Swexit,” “Frexit,” and “Italexit” sagas unfolding as countries consider the value of staying in a broken union while popular opinion weighs against it.

What’s more, it sometimes seems that nobody outside the U.K. is really fighting to keep it in the European Union save arrogant Eurocrats and multi-national and British-based pan-European businesses that will be directly affected by the British vote.

A recent survey by the German Bertelsmann Foundation suggests that the majority of Europeans may favor the U.K. remaining in Europe, but they are not exactly pleading with their friends across the English Channel to stay. And some may be inspired to ditch the European project themselves.

Take France, a founding member and architect of the European Union. According to the Bertelsmann poll, only 41 percent of the French think British voters should vote to stay. Next year, Marine Le Pen, a fervent anti-EU campaigner, will almost certainly dominate the first round of France’s presidential elections, even if, like her father when he was a candidate in 2002, she is forced out in the second round.

In the wake of a Brexit vote, it’s certain that Marine Le Pen’s calls for France to hold its own referendum will gain momentum, and it’s no accident that she announced this week she was very much in favor of Britain pulling out.

“I would vote for Brexit, even if I think that France has a thousand more reasons to leave than the U.K.,” she said, since the French have to deal with the euro currency and the open borders of the continent under the Schengen agreement, both of which the British refused to join long ago. “Whatever the result,” said Le Pen, “it shows the EU is decaying, that there are cracks everywhere.”

In Germany, another founding EU member, just 54 percent would like to see their British mates stay in the gang, according to the Bertelsmann poll. Italians and Spaniards are more accommodating, polling at 56 and 64 percent respectively. But other data suggest that they might be among the first to follow suit with their own referendums if the EU starts tearing apart at the seams.

The same Bertelsmann poll suggests that if Italy would hold a similar referendum on maintaining its membership, it would be a close, close race, with only 52 percent voting to stay. In a separate Eurostat survey 47 percent of Italians said they have not benefited at all from EU membership, with nearly 10 percent more answering that they didn’t know if they did or not, which implies that they likely don’t. And the fact that Italians voted over the weekend to elect mayors of Rome and Turin from the anti-Europe Five-Star Movement could spell trouble if they prove to be effective leaders.

In the Eurostat survey, 56 percent of Greeks said they did not benefit from EU membership and 45 percent of Austrians just don’t see what the EU has done for them.

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Interestingly, only 37 percent of Britons actually said they did not benefit from EU membership, despite the fact that the Leave campaign is polling much higher than that.

Such data underscore the basic concern of many European leaders when it comes to holding a referendum: the vote is likely to reflect short-term emotions driven by current events, not long-term development strategies. In 2005, for instance, the French voted down the European constitution that their leaders had taken a major hand in drafting. The basic reason: the vote had become a de facto referendum on the increasingly unpopular presidency of Jacques Chirac.

When British Prime Minister David Cameron made a pledge in 2013 to hold the Brexit referendum, he was trying to protect his right flank inside and outside the Conservative Party, and felt reasonably certain Britain would vote to stay in. But that was before the onslaught of ISIS organized and inspired terrorism in nearby France, and the refugee crisis overwhelming Europe’s southern and eastern borders. Those concerns are being exploited by the right wing throughout Europe, and tend to overshadow the often confusing economic arguments pro and con.

Some reports suggest that countries like Italy will see as much as a 7 percent drop in exports to the U.K., while Germans could see a 3 percent drop in their overall growth rate. Yet other reports, like Standard & Poor’s recent sensitivity index of the top 20 countries that would be most affected by a Brexit—“Who Has The Most To Lose From Brexit?”—suggests that it might not be that bad. Ireland and Malta face the biggest economic risks while Italy and Austria apparently won’t feel much pain at all. The United States doesn’t even make the list of affected countries.

“Much of the disaffection with the EU among Europeans can be attributed to Brussels’ handling of the refugee issue,” according to a multi-national Pew Research Center poll in early June. 

“The British are not the only ones with doubts about the European Union,” according to the Pew findings.  “The EU’s image and stature have been on a roller coaster ride in recent years throughout Europe.”

Front line countries facing the refugee and migrant influx, like Italy and Greece, obviously see the refugee crisis as a problem for all of Europe to share. Land-locked countries quite obviously disagree with that concept and have tightened up their borders accordingly.

The only thing most EU countries agree on is how badly Europe has handled the crisis. “In every country surveyed, overwhelming majorities disapprove of how Brussels has dealt with the problem. This includes 94 percent of Greeks, 88 percent of Swedes and 77 percent of Italians. The strongest approval of EU management of the refugee crisis is in the Netherlands, but that backing is a tepid 31 percent.”

If British voters do decide to stay, one has to wonder if it will it be like the couple that remains together “for the sake of the kids” where the troubles that led them to this point will continue to bubble below the surface. Or, if they leave, is there going to be a contagion of divorce all through the neighborhood? Whatever happens on Thursday, much damage already has been done.