Vive la Revolution
2017 is a critical year for European politics not to mention the triggering of Article 50 and Trump.
More confusing than the British discussion on EU membership is the continental European debate on how to respond. The standard view among European officials is that Brexit threatens to turn the EU into a dystopia through a domino effect of other countries that might leave - Denmark, Sweden, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands even. A Brexit might lead to the departure of one or two member states - at most. It would certainly end the illusion of irreversible EU membership. But few, except the most pessimistic observers, believe that it would end up destroying the EU. I do not think so either.
There is an alternative more credible view that Remain might end up as the more cataclysmic option. If Remain wins, not only would Britain's uneasy relationship with the EU continue, but it would get worse. The big issue from a continental European perspective is Britain's membership of the single market combined with continued non-membership of the eurozone, the Schengen area, common immigration and asylum policies to name but a few. David Cameron's agreement with the EU allows him to impose discrimination between UK and non-UK workers - a principle the EU never conceded before.
The area I consider most vulnerable to a future dispute is the eurozone's uneven progress towards a banking union, which Britain has opted out of as well. Membership of the single market for financial services, which is so important to the City of London, is ultimately incompatible with the requirements of a banking union that is bound to deepen in the coming years. Its members naturally have different interests than non-members - most importantly on financial stability. The decisions they will take will have a deep impact on the single market. I would expect the next financial crisis to flush out the irreconcilable differences between the ins and outs in full.
Another political problem will be the lack of appetite to implement all of Mr Cameron's agreement with Brussels. The in-work benefits part of the deal will happen. But I cannot see the EU implementing the UK's exemption from ever closer union and political integration. This would require a change to the European treaties. I see no appetite for treaty change in France. In the UK, meanwhile, failure by other member states to implement the agreement in full could easily give rise to a we-were-robbed type argument by the Leave campaign. They will, with some legitimacy, be able to argue that the most important promise of the Remain campaign has been broken, and will ask for another referendum.
At a deeper level, the UK referendum is not really about in or out. The UK departed from the European mainstream in the 1990s when John Major negotiated the opt-outs from the Maastricht Treaty and when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown decided not to participate in the monetary union. The real choice is between the status quo of a membership of a single market and not much else, or a more remote relationship with a free trade agreement and partial access to the single market. It is still an important choice, but a nuanced one.
Wolfgang Münchau is an associate editor of the Financial Times, where he writes a weekly column about the European Union and the European economy. Before taking up this position in September 2003, he was co-editor of Financial Times Deutschland for two years.