The US and indeed the world is currently obsessed with how the run up to the US presidential elections is developing.
In Europe, whilst this contest is followed with interest (and a mixture of amusement and fear whenever Donald Trump makes an appearance) Europeans have their own elections to keep them busy.
On June 23rd the UK will hold a referendum on whether to continue to be a member of the European Union. Will Britain remain or will they “Brexit”?
For non Europeans who are still, understandably confused by Europe, such an event may not appear to be very interesting.
The EU is made up of 28 very different nations, so losing one should not make much of a different right?
In fact, the scenario which is currently terrifying Eurocrats, could well have implications well beyond the EU’s vast borders.
Should the UK leave, there is a very strong chance that the Netherlands would follow. To lose one country might be considered unfortunate, but to lose two looks like carelessness.
Many commentators have suggested that other countries would soon follow, leading to the eventual break up of the European Union. Again, why should this be of any concern to non-Europeans?
There is a strong argument for claiming that the European Union has delivered peacetime in Europe, with no member states fighting one another in the 58 years since the Treaty of Rome was signed. It is difficult to prove that the EU is not a very expensive elephant spray, but the history books would seem to suggest that without some form of political union, Europeans would quite happily be trying to kill one another. Certainly the former member states of Yugoslavia who have joined the EU, are hoping that they benefit from a peace dividend following the horrific Balkan wars of the 90s.
It is in everyone’s interest to maintain peace in Europe and this is where the US will probably sit up, as there are plenty of Americans still alive who cannot recall European place names without a chill. London, Paris and Amsterdam will be picture post-card memories for some but Bastogne and Normandy are something else entirely.
How would Americans feel about being dragged into another overseas war, in a theatre that they had considered to be a stable place for their university age kids to tour before starting their careers?
A more tangible benefit of the EU is that it is a single market permitting the free movement of goods, capital and services between member states. It also permits the free movement of people. A bank worker living in Germany can have a drive to work which takes him through Belgium before reaching Luxembourg (a founder EU member) and the office.
A break up of the EU would also signal an end to the TTIP or Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which the EU and US have been working towards for some years. The TTIP is an attempt at an EU/US trade agreement which optimists believe could result in economic benefits worth billions. The TTIP is not particularly popular in Europe, but the US is particularly enthusiastic about the potential benefits and would be sorry to see such an initiative wither on the vine.
Probably the most recognisable symbol of the EU is the Euro, the single currency which has been adopted by the majority of the EU states (but not the UK, who still likes to see the Queen staring up at them from their wallets).
An inevitable consequence of the single currency is the tying together of EU countries at opposite ends of the economic power scale. By joining the Euro, comfortably well off nations (Germany and France) have found their fates shackled to economic basket cases.
When the European debt crisis triggered in 2009 several of the smaller, weaker member states (Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland) were unable to pay off their debts and had to bail out their banks. Their partners in the EU suddenly found themselves being asked to pay billions to help those in trouble. Many of those in well off countries were already tightening their belts and were not at all enthusiastic about helping countries that they felt were the authors of their own misfortune.
If a Brexit was a catalyst to an EU break up, the Euro would disappear. As the single currency is a competitor to the US dollar, it could be argued that the US would be one of the few parties to benefit from the death of the Euro.
I have only presented a very small set of EU characteristics which might be of interest to an internationally minded American. The pro’s and con’s of EU membership currently being weighed up by the UK are many, varied and complex.
The fact that a referendum is necessary, shows that the European unity experiment has faltered. In the future, the financial crisis years will probably be seen as a watershed moment in European history, where the good years ended and the thin veneer of European brotherhood was stripped away. Is this the time when fiscally sound Germans start to resent perceived Greek profligacy and say no more bail-outs? Do the British farmers say enough of the EU subsidies to the French and decide to go it alone?
The EU motto is “United in diversity”, but the financial crisis years have shown the word “United” may just be an empty epithet.