Ben Wellings is deputy director of the European and EU Centre at Monash University, and the author of English Nationalism and Euroscepticism: Losing the Peace
Crisis, as we know, is the new normal in Europe. The United Kingdom's referendum on the European Union and the attendant prospect of a British exit – Brexit – have driven the EU to a new brink.
In the midst of the refugee crisis, with the six-year euro zone drama and a resurgent Russia as a backdrop, Brexit was the wild card in the EU's troubles. This card came up trumps on the weekend with a deal struck ultimately aimed at keeping the European Union together in its current form.
If passed by a referendum on June 23, Britain will have a special status within the EU: protection from further integration into the political and monetary project of European unity and curtailment of the principle of freedom of movement for EU citizens.
There are already two EUs: the euro zone and the rest. But the hard-fought deal revealed differences in the meaning of "Europe" and "European" across the continent. Central European countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic were puzzled that their citizens were targeted as "migrants," unwelcome burdens to be discouraged from arriving in the U.K. rather than fellow Europeans. The French government worried about European solidarity while seeking to protect French banks against the behemoths in the City of London. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was outwardly supportive, but many in her increasingly critical party complained about the British getting "extrawurst," or special treatment.
The "Remain" campaign has the weight of arguments about economic prosperity on its side, but its victory should not be assured. Outright enthusiasm for the EU is rare. The "Outers" are the rebels with a cause and have the emotive arguments about sovereignty, independence and immigration on their side. The English press have been hostile to Britain's engagement with Europe for many years.
Euroskeptics are a significant and vocal minority. They pushed Prime Minister David Cameron on this issue, concerned by the threat of the secessionist UK Independence Party. It is easy to underestimate how strongly these Euroskeptics feel about the EU. Even if they shy away from comparing it directly to the Third Reich, they do see it something akin to Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany, a hegemonic enforcer of a stultifying étatisme. They suggest various alternatives, including the anglosphere, and champion the cause of democracy and freedom.
Although less strident, support for the EU has been softening on the left of British politics too. Labour Party members were Britain's original Euroskeptics before the term was invented. This changed in the 1980s and under the "moderinzation" project associated with former prime minister Tony Blair. But the Iraq War ended the Blairite honeymoon with Europe and the relationship reverted to type: continued engagement behind the scenes, but publicly dismissive and awkward.
The handling of the euro zone crisis in Greece further dented affection for the EU on the left and right. It only confirmed the Euroskeptics' suspicion about the peril technocratic government posed to democracy. The list of the EU's supporters in Britain grew thin.
Britain's European question also played into its national questions. Although Scots rejected outright independence in 2014, the leader of the secessionist Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, indicated that if Scots vote to remain in the EU but English votes drag them out, this will trigger another vote on independence – the so-called #Indyref2. Just as problematic is the idea that pro-EU Scottish votes keep an anti-EU England in Europe. In this scenario, it is the future of the United Kingdom and not just the European Union that is in doubt.
Political opinion runs ahead of public opinion on this matter. Europe is an issue that motivates politicians, especially on the right, but usually leaves voters cold at general elections. But referendums are different. In the past decade, Euroskepticism, populism and disenchantment with politics have coalesced to form a cross-party critique of the EU and the British political establishment that cannot be ignored.
What ever the outcome of June's referendum, the British deal means that the idea of Europe is a little more truncated than it was before the weekend. Europe may be defined as much by the fear of Russian President Vladimir Putin than by any intrinsic sense of commonality. Some will also see this as a missed opportunity to reform the EU as a whole rather than shunt the U.K. into a siding.
If keeping Greece in the euro zone was important, keeping Britain in the EU is crucial. The referendum on British membership represents the most immediate and greatest challenge to the post-Cold War order. The contraction of the European Union, rather than its expansion, is a very real prospect.