Two very different countries are challenging the European Union’s cohesion and the outcome of this test will determine the future of the greatest experiment in democracy that the world has known. Britain, a former superpower, once said that the sun never set on its imperial domain, and it is still the EU’s second-largest economy; Greece, which has been plagued by bankruptcies since its independence, is the Union’s most troubled economy. Both present problems that demand a radical shift in the way that the EU has operated over the past decades, in order to protect all that it has achieved.
Whereas Greece’s need for its partners’ support stems from the country’s inability to reform its economy, public administration and political system so as to be a viable competitor in the global economy, Britain is putting similar pressure on the EU’s cohesion in the belief that it has to insulate itself from its partners, to safeguard what it considers its special advantages. The two countries’ political systems and economies are vastly different, as is their geopolitical stature. Greece has been an enthusiastic member of the EU since it joined in 1981 and is part of its inner sanctum, the eurozone. Britain has always been at pains to opt out from too much union, avoiding the euro and abstaining from Greece’s bailout. During the crisis, Greece has benefited from the support (with painful strings attached) of its partners, while Britain has gained enormously – from money fleeing the European periphery for what is seen as the safe haven of Britain, and from the Bank of England’s independence from the austerity dogma imposed on the rest of the EU.
Both Greece and Britain have contributed to the EU in their own unique way, and each one’s relationship with the rest of the Union also shows the great tension at the heart of every association: Even as every member needs the advantages provided by the group, each fears being absorbed by the others, to the extent that it loses its independence, its special characteristics and the freedom to exploit its differences to its own advantage. Greece cannot function without financial support, yet it also cannot accept the loss of independence that this entails; Britain, which has gained much from being “in and out” of the Union, is in danger of getting too far from the center of gravity. But a total break will leave it on its own, unable to influence EU policy.
In the EU the great question today is whether countries can place the common good above their national interest. The Greek elections in January intensified the push and pull between the country and its partners, with results that are still unpredictable. Whatever the outcome of Thursday’s election, Britain, too, will test the limits of membership and the Union’s cohesion. All players should remember two simple facts: Thanks to ever closer union, Europe has enjoyed 70 years of unprecedented peace and prosperity; pulling too hard can break any bond.