After April's referendum in the Netherlands in which Dutch voters rejected the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement and now the vote by the Brits to leave the EU, Brussels is on the verge of suffering its third strike, which could leave the bloc down and out.
There’s no shortage of candidates prepared to deliver that fatal blow. Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front party, welcomed the UK’s decision to leave the EU and called for a similar referendum in her country and even others elsewhere in the bloc.
“Victory for freedom! As I have asked for years, we need now the same referendum in France and in the EU countries,” she tweeted.
Indeed, the National Front is just one of several Eurosceptic parties that have gained ground across the EU in recent years, from west to east. In Western Europe, there is the Alternative for Germany, the Danish People’s Party, the Austrian Freedom Party, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and the Five Star Movement in Italy. In Central Europe these parties are actually in power: there is Hungary’s Fidesz and Poland’s Law & Justice.
Peter Spiegel, news editor of the Financial Times, told the BBC’s Today programme that over the coming days and weeks there will be a “Brussels dynamic” where the main EU countries like France and Germany will come together in big displays of unity, perhaps announcing new initiatives. But there will be another dynamic, that of the Ukip-like elements across Europe in places like France and Scandinavia, calling for their own referenda.
“You’re already seeing the centrifugal forces,” Speiegel said. “There will be a difference between the core and the periphery. The ones at most at risk are frankly those most like UK, in Scandinavia particularly… In eastern Europe, in Poland you already have a very Eurosceptic government in place, in Hungary you have a very anti-EU prime minister – it’s those peripheral areas where there’s most nervousness about contagion.”
But while there’s certainly a lot of Euroscepticism about, it’s not so much in evidence amongst the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe.
A June survey for Pew Research Center found that only 38% of French still hold a favourable view of the EU, six points lower than in the UK. Euroscepticism, the pollster found, is on the rise across Europe and that about two-thirds of both the British and the Greeks, along with significant minorities in other key nations, want some powers returned from Brussels to national governments.
However, while Emerging Europe might have Eurosceptic governments, few of the inhabitants in the region appear likely to clamour for a referendum. According to the Pew Research poll, the institution’s strongest backers are the Poles (72%) and the Hungarians (61%).
Short of further referenda, it’s clear to many that EU enlargement is probably at an end – at least for the foreseeable future. That’s bad news for Southeast Europe where all the candidate countries hail from, as well as many of those who want to become candidate countries. There are currently five candidate countries for EU accession: Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey; others who want to join the queue include Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Moldova and Ukraine.
These are also the countries that are most fragile. “If you believe that EU accession has been a force for delivering peace, stability growth, development and prosperity across the EU's borders, this process is likely now to go into reverse, with obvious consequences,” notes Tim Ash of Nomura International. “Do I need to spell this out? But remember the continent is still awash with bitter ethnic tensions and border disputes. These could easily resurface.”
Turkey, which has borne the brunt of nasty comments from both sides of the UK debate since the campaign began about its EU aspirations, has already put the boot in: Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli tweeted that the EU disintegration process has already started. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested a day before the Brexit vote that Ankara could hold its own referendum on whether or not to continue the long-stalled EU accession process.
Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, in his response to the UK’s decision cited his father, who said that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; he’s assuming, of course, that the British vote hasn’t just killed the institution he leads.