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Britain voted to leave the European Union in a referendum on Thursday

Rosa Balfour: The present crisis points to a broader crisis of advanced democracies

Editor’s Note: Rosa Balfour is a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund’s Europe Program and the author of “Human Rights and Democracy in EU Foreign Policy: The Cases of Ukraine and Egypt.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

CNN —  

The pre-referendum scenarios drawn up for a Brexit were not enough to prepare everyone for the dangerous uncertainty that Thursday’s referendum result has brought to Britain and the European Union.

In Britain, the ruling Conservative Party and the country are perhaps irreparably divided. In the EU, the evident need for a profound renewal of the European integration project is hampered by differing visions about what the EU should be about.

Rosa Balfour
Courtesy of Rosa Balfour
Rosa Balfour

All this comes against the backdrop of mounting Euro-skepticism, which populists have shown to be masters in exploiting. Indeed, upcoming electoral appointments in Spain, Italy, France, and Germany make the political context highly unfavorable to any new, big idea about rejuvenating the continent – with or without Britain.

How did we get to this point?

If what was a political party split turned into a Europe-wide crisis, it is because it reveals deeper fractures inside Britain – and inside Europe. Words like “disempowerment,” “marginalization” and “disenfranchisement” have been on the lips of many.

But while populists have been very successful in manipulating and exploiting these sentiments, they are not the cause of them. Blaming populism simply underlines the divide between the political elites in power and those who claim to represent the “real people.”

These feelings exist because the connection between citizens and institutions of democratic representation and decision-making is not functioning. National leaders are responsible for this more than the EU, as they are the conduit between decisions that require European cooperation (such as managing globalization) and national debates.

The referendum campaign has shown how hard it is to move from five years of EU criticism to two months of EU support. Politicians all over Europe should therefore take more care when blaming Brussels for the failures of national government. Many political leaders are chasing the populist vote by mimicking its rhetoric, with the unintended result of strengthening the anti-establishment parties. Instead, the causes of disaffection are what need to be addressed – by all political organizations.

Moving forward, mainstream parties and EU institutions should refocus on their core values: open and tolerant management of diversity, cooperation as the best way to manage political conflict, participation as the means to maintain order and the sovereignty the Brexiteers worried so much about.

The next few months will have to be handled carefully by policymakers if there is to be any chance of creating a secure foundation for reinventing Europe’s role and standing. But there is one mistake that must be avoided – a focus on short term responses rather than addressing the deeper reasons for today’s crisis, something that could ultimately jeopardize Europe’s future.

Since 2008, the EU has demonstrated a pattern of short-term crisis-management that saves the day but does not solve the problem. Decisions made to rapidly contain the impact of the financial crisis or the refugee influx have boomeranged in the form of close-to-zero growth, Turkey’s near-blackmailing of the EU and the damage to the EU’s global image due to its double standards on the rights of refugees. Rushed and ill-thought-out contingency plans do not pay off.

In a similar vein, a messily negotiated Brexit followed by whatever new relationship Britain will have with the EU (there is no realistic vision in the Leave camp and little agreement even on the fantasies that have circulated), may create other traps that will haunt Europe’s future. After all, among those who voted to leave are many – represented in the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) – whose mission is actually to destroy the EU.

The process to negotiate Britain’s exit will have to ensure that decisions are not made that encourage the holding of referendums in other countries – the contagion effect all European leaders dread. To do so, it will be more important than ever that the EU stands firmly by its legal obligations and principles, and treats Britain fairly but firmly. The costs for Britain will be high, and should deter any other country from pursuing Britain’s approach.

In the end, rather than invent some new policies that may or may not interest disaffected citizens, the EU institutions should stick to core principles and offer new ways to encourage political participation in a complex, multi-level institutional structure. This present situation points to a broader crisis of advanced democracies, but the response does not lie in Yes and No referendums. These will not provide the answer. Instead, Europe needs to rethink political participation to give citizens a new sense of purpose for the 21st century.

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Rosa Balfour is a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund’s Europe Program and the author of “Human Rights and Democracy in EU Foreign Policy: The Cases of Ukraine and Egypt.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.