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Post-Brexit survival supplies in Britain known as “Brexit boxes.” Migrant rescue ships banned from Italian ports. France nearly crippled by endless gilets jaunes protests. The relentless rise of right-wing, Euroskeptic populist parties. Germany’s main opposition party campaigning for a German version of Brexit.

What is happening to the European Union? It seems to be cracking, maybe fatally so, and it’s not just because of Brexit.

On Tuesday night, the British parliament handed Prime Minister Theresa May a stunning defeat, rejecting her Brexit plan by a thumping 230 votes. The plan, which had set Brexit day for March 29, apparently pleased no one: not the Remainers, who wanted Britain to remain firmly planted in the EU; not the Leavers, who rejected Ms. May’s Brexit-lite plan that would leave Britain stuck in the customs union; and not the hard-core Brexiteers, who wanted no part of a customs union.

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The vote triggered chaos. After Ms. May’s plan crashed and burned, no one could say for sure what will happen next. Various scenarios, each credible to some degree, had Ms. May resigning (unlikely), an election called, a new referendum on Brexit, Brexit in March in a disastrous crash-out fashion, or kicking the can down the road by extending Article 50, the EU exit clause, giving Britain some breathing room while an overhauled exit deal is bashed out in Parliament.​

Whatever the case, Brexit this year is still possible, even likely. And if Brexit does not happen, Britain will remain a highly divided nation, with roughly half of the electorate eager to bid adieu to the EU. Brexit or no Brexit, Britain’s relationship with the EU, never easy at the best of times, will never be the same.

Losing the union’s second or third biggest economy (it’s roughly tied with France) and its leading neo-liberal voice would be a huge blow to the EU. But Brexit would not kill the EU. Other factors could and some of them are showing distressing signs of vigour. Faith in the European project is fading fast, with countries on the so-called periphery – those beyond the Franco-German core – losing faith the fastest.

The EU and its predecessor editions have expanded in stages since 1957’s Treaty of Rome, whose signing begat the European Economic Community. The last great push, to the east, brought former dictatorships, among them the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and Latvia, into the EU fold. Today’s EU membership count stands at 28 (falling to 27 if Brexit happens).

Why did the periphery countries join the EU? It wasn’t for EU handouts. They were keen to join because they wanted to boost their levels of wealth through access to the world’s greatest consumer market, but also because they wanted to adopt the EU core countries’ governance qualities, from sound fiscal management and high environmental standards to the rule of law and transparency.

Those qualities did not flow to the periphery evenly or in great quantities, and over time, the EU divide widened – the wealthy, well governed core countries versus the recklessly governed, and often entirely corrupt, poor southern and eastern countries made poorer by deep recessions after the 2008 financial crisis. The lack of progress in the south and the east presented a dilemma to the core EU countries: How to keep this EU integration project alive?

The evident solution was to invent the transfer union, in which endless handouts in the form of EU development grants and development funds, sovereign bailouts (of Greece, Portugal and Cyprus, for instance) and other freebies or near freebies kept the periphery from losing all faith in the EU. Of course, the transfer union scheme is entirely unsustainable. It builds resentment in the rich countries, stoking resentment that leads to Euroskeptic right-wing populism. The funds directed at the periphery sometimes ended up in the hands of the elites, the undeserving or the corrupt, who doled it out sparingly, building resentment in the recipient countries.

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The EU cannot thrive on a gravy train model. It’s unaffordable and counterproductive.

At the same time, the eastern countries, the ones that suffered decades of brutal Soviet control, were resisting handing more control to the EU (as Britain was). Once detached from the Soviet Union, they wanted to discover their identities and nurture their independence, as the Czechs and the Slovaks did after Czechoslovakia was split down the middle in 1993 – the velvet divorce.

Today, the manifestation of the waning interest in the EU can be seen in the rise of the right-wing populist parties, each of which is Euroskeptic to varying degrees. These parties are either in power or highly influential in the governments of Italy, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Finland and Denmark.

The Alternative For Germany, the main opposition party in the German parliament, despises the EU’s migrant policies and has vowed to campaign for “Dexit” – a German exit from the EU. Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, probably the most successful Euroskeptic populist in the EU, has 3.3 million Facebook followers and almost one million Twitter followers. He has defied the EU by preventing charity rescue ships from landing migrants at EU ports, and his government has shown that it is happy to break the EU’s budget deficit rules.

Mr. Salvini and other prominent Euroskeptics, among them Marine Le Pen of France and Geert Wilders of Netherlands, want to form an EU-wide nationalistic bloc in May’s EU parliamentary elections. Polls suggest this bloc could gain 200 of the parliament’s 751 seats, enough to frustrate any further EU integration moves.

These parties want a new, decentralized model for Europe, one that could be called a “Europe of Nations.” The EU has seen no major integration effort since the Lisbon Treaty came into force in 2009. With Brexit and the rise of the Euroskeptic populist parties, integration will stay on hold or go in reverse. The question is whether the cracks will widen to the point where the EU disintegrates. The EU elections will provide a powerful clue.

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eu right-wing populist parties

By country, party and number of seats

in national parliament

No. of seats held by party

Total no. of seats in parliament

Austria

Freedom Party of Austria

51

183

Belgium

Vlaams Belang

6

124

Bulgaria

United Patriots

27

240

Czech Republic

Ano

78

200

Denmark

Danish People’s Party

37

179

Estonia

Cons. People’s Party of Estonia

7

101

Finland

Blue Reform

18

200

France

Rassemblement National

7

577

Germany

Alternative for Germany

91

709

Hungary

Fidesz

133

199

Jobbik

26

199

Italy

Lega

125

630

Latvia

National Alliance

13

100

Lithuania

Order and Justice

7

141

Luxembourg

Alternative Dem. Reform Party

4

60

Netherlands

Forum for Democracy

2

150

Poland

Law and Justice

237

460

Slovakia

Slovak National Party

15

150

People’s Party Our Slovakia

14

150

Sweden

Sweden Democrats

62

349

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: graphic news

(election results; politico; spiegel; univ. of bremen)

eu right-wing populist parties

By country, party and number of seats in national parliament

No. of seats held by party

Total no. of seats in parliament

Hungary

Austria

Freedom Party of Austria

Fidesz

133

199

51

183

Jobbik

26

199

Belgium

Vlaams Belang

Italy

6

124

Lega

125

630

Bulgaria

United Patriots

Latvia

27

240

National Alliance

13

100

Czech Republic

Lithuania

Ano

Order and Justice

78

200

7

141

Denmark

Luxembourg

Danish People’s Party

Altern. Dem. Reform Party

37

179

4

60

Estonia

Netherlands

Cons. People’s Party of Estonia

Forum for Democracy

7

101

2

150

Poland

Finland

Law and Justice

Blue Reform

237

460

18

200

Slovakia

Slovak National Party

France

15

150

Rassemblement National

People’s Party Our Slovakia

7

577

14

150

Germany

Sweden

Alternative for Germany

Sweden Democrats

91

709

62

349

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: graphic news (election results;

politico; spiegel; univ. of bremen)

eu right-wing populist parties

By country, party and number of seats in national parliament

Number of seats held by party

Total number of seats in parliament

Austria

Hungary

Freedom Party of Austria

Fidesz

133

199

51

183

Jobbik

26

199

Belgium

Vlaams Belang

Italy

6

124

Lega

125

630

Bulgaria

United Patriots

Latvia

27

240

National Alliance

13

100

Czech Republic

Lithuania

Ano

Order and Justice

78

200

7

141

Denmark

Luxembourg

Danish People’s Party

Alternative Dem. Reform Party

37

179

4

60

Estonia

Netherlands

Cons. People’s Party of Estonia

Forum for Democracy

7

101

2

150

Poland

Finland

Law and Justice

Blue Reform

237

460

18

200

Slovakia

Slovak National Party

France

15

150

Rassemblement National

People’s Party Our Slovakia

7

577

14

150

Germany

Sweden

Alternative for Germany

Sweden Democrats

91

709

62

349

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: graphic news (election results;

politico; spiegel; univ. of bremen)

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