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For weeks, Europe has been discussing one single issue to the virtual exclusion of all others: Will the United Kingdom remain in the European Union? Or will it plunge itself and the rest of the community into a risky adventure by the name of Brexit? Those who oppose Brexit have not tired of painting a gloomy picture of the myriad dangers facing both Britain and the other 27 EU member states: recession, the loss of jobs and trade ties, cuts to the budget and social welfare benefits for Britain; an existential crisis for the already crisis-plagued EU and possibly the beginning of European disintegration.
Brexit proponents, on the other hand, have promised the British more sovereignty and democratic self-determination, less immigration and more security should the electorate decide to cast off the yoke of Brussels tyranny.
Today, judgment day has finally arrived: The British are voting yes or no to Europe -- a question that has been elevated to one of momentous importance.
There is indeed a lot at stake: Will the third-largest EU country, and second-largest economy, remain part of the European family? Or will it once again go its own way after 43 years of membership, a move that could instantly transform it into an example that nationalists and euroskeptics across Europe would seek to emulate?
Now that the ferocious campaigning has come to an end, each British citizen is faced with a question that is actually quite prosaic: What is personally more advantageous and what is better for their country? The answer depends on whether individual voters see personal advantages to EU membership -- or whether they fear the Brussels Leviathan, the alleged mass immigration from the continent or the loss of British identity.
No one can say with certainty what the negative consequences of Brexit would be for Britain because there is no precedent. There are just forecasts and estimates. Much depends on the relationship an independent United Kingdom would have with the EU in the future.
Would it remain part of the common market and would it otherwise establish close ties with the European community? That would lessen the impact for British companies and banks and prevent them from having to establish new markets.
Such an outcome would also be advantageous for the economies of the remaining EU member states given that it would avert the sudden severing of ties built up over the course of four decades. Each side could continue to profit from unfettered trade in Europe, which is especially important to Britain.
The EU Must Reform Anyway
But because such an outcome will only become clear once the exit negotiations have been completed, significant uncertainty will prevail in both Britain and the rest of the EU until then. As such, it seems likely that financial markets would immediately begin speculating against the pound and euro following a vote in favor of Brexit, investors would show reserve and companies from outside of Europe would be unsure if a 27-member EU would remain as strong as it has been up until now.
More than anything, though, Brexit would be a blow to the European idea. Thus far, that idea has rested on the fundamental principle of ever-closer European integration. The withdrawal of a member state, particularly one as meaningful as Britain, has never been part of the blueprint. Always forward, never back -- the erstwhile East German slogan has always applied to the EU as well.
A Stumbling Block for the EU
But would the UK's withdrawal really be the kind of catastrophe that has been invoked in recent weeks? As important as the country is for the European economy, it has also always been a stumbling block in the path of European unity. Britain has sought to thwart almost all steps toward integration undertaken in the last several decades and has demanded national exceptions. The country didn't want to be part of the joint currency regime and neither has it shown interest in joint immigration and asylum policies.
Without the constant objections coming from London, it could become much easier for the European club to reach agreement on uniform action.
Brexit could thus represent a twofold opportunity. For the British, the chance to once again shape their policies completely as they like. And for the rest of the EU member states, the chance to free themselves from paralysis.
The withdrawal of Britain could even represent an opportunity to narrow the chasm between the EU and its citizens. Among other things, Europeans accuse the EU of being too uncaring and too focused on the economy. Without the market-liberal British, the influence within the EU of countries like Germany, which insist on strict adherence to debt and budgetary rules, could shift in favor of member states that place more emphasis on economic growth and the fight against unemployment.
What Route Does the EU Want to Take?
But even if the British vote to remain a member of the EU, the community cannot stay as it is now. Once the smoke from the Brexit referendum has cleared, the EU will have to decide what route it wants to take.
Not just the Brexit crisis, but also the euro and refugee crises have clearly shown the limits of the current community model. The stumbling from crisis summit to crisis summit, the constant wheeling and dealing between European capitals and Brussels -- these opaque, undemocratic activities don't just prevent the solving of problems, they also estrange the EU from its citizens. Today's referendum in Britain could ultimately be the clearest indication yet of that process.
If the EU doesn't manage to pass fundamental reforms, referendums in other countries could soon follow. And that would be a much greater catastrophe than Brexit.
Translated by Charles Hawley