The European Union is a dysfunctional beast. It is undemocratic. It is obsessed with regulations that are either ignored or drive businesses mad. It is not growing, and the euro's one-size-fits-all approach is patently unworkable in such diverse countries. Its regulatory institutions are weak. The banking union is going nowhere.
No wonder the Brits are hitting the road.
The reality is somewhat different. The EU is springing back to life and is doing a few jobs amazingly well. Take anti-trust policy. Denmark's Margrethe Vestager, the European Commissioner for Competition, is going after big-name targets that U.S. regulators consider virtually untouchable.
In the name of protecting consumer choice and fair pricing – keeping the marketplace free of bullying corporate behaviour – Ms. Vestager is a fire breather. This week, she slapped Google with a €2.4-billion ($3.5-billion) fine for abusing its near monopoly in online searches, giving "illegal advantage" to its own shopping service.
Ms. Vestager is easily the world's most aggressive and effective trust buster. Last year, she vetoed the £10.5-billion merger of the British telecom arms of Telefónica and CK Hutchison. She went after Apple, determining that the iPhone maker enjoyed a €13-billion Irish tax concession that amounted to illegal state aid. She imposed a record fine of €2.9-billion against Europe's biggest truck makers for the sins of collusion and price-fixing.
One hopes Ms. Vestager is just getting started as the tech behemoths – Amazon, Google (owned by Alphabet), Apple, Facebook, Uber, Netflix, among them – crush the competition beneath them. But that's not the point.
The point is that the EU as a club has been undersold. EU membership does have its rewards. They are not as strong as advertised, but they are undeniable in some cases, such as competition policy and trade and, in the euro zone countries, monetary policy through the European Central Bank.
The good news is not limited to Ms. Vestager. The economy of the EU, which is dominated by the 19 euro zone countries, is growing faster than that of Britain or the United States. In the first three months of this year, EU gross domestic product rose 0.6 per cent – three times the British rate. Incredibly, even Italy has nudged ahead of Britain in the Group of Seven growth tables. Unemployment in the EU and the euro zone is falling fairly rapidly, hitting the lowest levels since the 2008-2009 financial crisis. The EU rate was last reported at 7.8 per cent.
Little surprise, then, that trust in and support for the EU is improving, even among the struggling Mediterranean countries. As the EU's image improves, the once-surging populist parties appear to be in retreat. Marine Le Pen and her xenophobic, far-right National Front made little progress in the recent presidential and National Assembly elections, which were won by Emmanuel Macron's centrist, strongly pro-EU forces.
Italy, where the populist Five Star Movement is roughly tied in the polls with the ruling, centre-left Democratic Party, is the wild card. But if Italy's economy gains momentum – there is no assurance it will, given the dire state of many of its banks and the country's allergic reactions to reform – Five Star could fade away.
Britain turned EU bashing into an industry. The Brexiteers convinced themselves that the EU economy would flatline forever. If Britain stayed put, we would be tethered to a corpse, they said. They argued that the EU's institutions were somewhere between lame and useless – never worth the price tag.
Today, the Brexit vote looks foolish, even though support for Brexit among the voters who endorsed it in last June's referendum remains high. The EU is no longer a corpse; its growth rates are putting Britain's to shame. The continent has not been hijacked by populist parties who want to throw up walls. The euro is no longer a clapped-out currency; in the past year, it's up 3 per cent against the U.S. dollar.
A year after the Brexit vote, Britain has gone in reverse. It has no Brexit plan, no vision of what it wants to be after 2019 and is completely delusional about its chances of striking favourable trade deals on its own. Having had two cynical and unnecessary votes within one year – the referendum and the June general election, in which Prime Minister Theresa May lost her majority – it is Britain, not the EU, that seems the embodiment of political instability.
The EU still faces formidable problems – from the migration crisis to the zombie status of banks in Italy, the euro zone's third-largest economy. But it's starting to get punchy again, and you only have to see Ms. Vestager in action to get the message: Britain picked the wrong time to ditch the EU.