To Brexit or not to Brexit? That is the question. Forgive the inappropriate Shakespeare quote, but all that is certain is that on the 23rd of June, the good people of the United Kingdom will vote on whether to remain a member of the European Union.
However, it should not be forgotten that a final vote for leave would be the latest action in a less-than-idyllic little marriage between Her Majesty's island and the European administration. (Remember, for example, the controversies over "internal" migration from Europe to the UK and the non-adoption of the Euro).
The damages would be substantial for both "spouses", but they're estimated to be particularly heavy for the UK, who could be set to lose an estimated 6% of GDP by 2030 and could see the pound collapse by 20%. A scenario bordering on apocalyptic, which doesn't seem to discourage the rhetoric of Brexit supporters, who accuse the Union of a democratic deficit whilst simultaneously recalling the grandeur of Britain's colonial empire.
So is it just their problem? Not exactly. As the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, rightly pointed out, the UK's exit from the EU would create an important precedent, one that would inevitably inflame anti-European sentiment already bubbling across the continent. Such feelings have recently begun to be exacerbated by the dual crises of the Eurozone and refugee influx.
When taking a closer look at data across Europe ahead of the UK's referendum, there's little to smile about. According to a study published last week by the American institute the Pew Research Center, support for the European Institutions among citizens of different EU countries has plummeted over the last year.
Although 70% of interviewees saw a potential Brexit as a negative prospect, only 38% of French citizens had a positive opinion about the EU – falling by 17% since last year. Spain presents a better situation, but with a similarly declining consensus (47% in favour of the Union, down 16 points from last year). Paradoxically, the most Europhilic countries are those whose governments have clashed with Brussels over the past few months: Poland (72% of interviewees in favour) and Hungary (61%).
Europe's problems go beyond the EU's "bad reputation" among its member states. According to another survey published by Ipsos, 58% of Italians and 55% of French people would want their own referendum on the subject of membership. All this is already true, regardless of the UK's referendum result; a sign that Brussels’ problems are not going to end on the 24th of June, regardless of the outcome.
Yet there's a surprise in store when you start analysing the data: the number of people who would actually vote to leave in these referendums is much lower – in some cases by large margins. People just want to go out and vote. "Only" 48% of Italians and 41% of French people would put a cross in the "exit" box.
We shouldn't forget that problems may well emerge from Northern Europe as well. The Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark, who have always been politically close to London, could feel more isolated from Brussels without strong British support and react consequently.
Increased participation cures all woes?
But what's caused this divergence in points of view? "The problem is that over the last few years the idea has been spread that increased participation in the State's decision-making processes is the panacea for all evils," explains Marco Borraccetti, Professor of European Union Law at the University of Bologna. "We choose representatives because, theoretically, they make decisions on behalf of the populace. This gap demonstrates that the desire to vote is much stronger than any enthusiasm for taking a leap in the dark. Even if it's certainly a worrying sign."
Therefore, it isn't just that Brexit is synonymous with economic, social and foreign policy problems. This equation still lacks a fundamental element: Scotland. "The Scots have always been strongly in favour of the European Union. This could create more problems for London, in the event of a Brexit," Borraccetti asserts. "How long will it take Scotland to decide to secede from the UK in order to enter the EU on its own? The nationalist feeling is strong, and a Brexit could be the final push needed for the Scots to take such a decision." An eventual Scottish secession could, in turn, "fuel other such identity movements in Europe, for example in Catalonia. Everything is at risk of experiencing an unpredictable domino effect."
Some of the dominos have already begun to fall. They are inflaming anti-European sentiment scattered all over Europe. You may wonder whether it's right that those elected decision-makers have left the responsibility (quite carelessly) up to people who may not have all the necessary elements to make such a decision with full awareness. Who couldn't see the queue of dominoes precariously balance behind the first piece? According to Ipsos, 53% of Europeans believe that a Brexit won't happen. Let's hope they're right. In the meantime, better to play Tiddlywinks.