The funny thing about the disintegration of the European Union was that it was only missed after it had gone. It was only in the months that followed that people, who had enthusiastically applauded “those bastards in Brussels” getting their comeuppance, started noticing the little things.
It had started, not surprisingly, with the British withdrawal. It hadn’t been the catastrophe predicted by the Yes side in the referendum, indeed quite the opposite. The perception of freedom that swept the British media, of “proper” border controls and Polish workers being “sent home”, and the Chancellor announcing a modest but significant Withdrawal Windfall were all seen across the continent, and received in different ways.
The Dutch, the Swedes, the Danes and the Czechs all narrowly voted to renegotiate, although the Finns narrowly voted the other way, possibly influenced by the almost daily boom of Russian fighters accidentally on purpose crossing into Finnish airspace. But the real nail in the coffin was the election of President Le Pen, who had met with her German counterpart and presented a proposal for a New Europe. The Germans were quick to point out that it was essentially a France with sealed borders, a tariff wall, and a cheque from German taxpayers to French farmers. When Berlin said no, Le Pen announced it unilaterally anyway, starting with a six month countdown to the restoration of the Franc.
German voters threw up their hands, announced that they had done their best, and elected a new Chancellor who secured a smaller union with Poland, Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, Finland and the Baltic states. Spain, Italy, and Portugal, all unwilling to remain in the Eurozone if France could competitively devalue, announced their withdrawal from the common currency. Ireland, watching the chaos, quietly scheduled a referendum to restore the Punt, assuming it would be pegged to Sterling.
The French and British barriers to free movement began to be replicated across the rest of the former EU, but it was the French tariff which triggered the major responses. Spain and Germany both put tariffs on French exports in retaliation, including exit taxes on tourists crossing the border. Bizarrely, the new National Front government seemed not to have considered that other countries would retaliate (“But we are France!” the new prime minister was alleged to have blurted out on hearing the news, before muttering about a conspiracy of “international financiers”. He also announced that in his opinion Alfred Dreyfus had been guilty.) and so acted to punish Spain and Germany with higher tariffs and actual bans on agricultural and motor products.
Within months, the European single market was effectively dead. Cross border trade continued, but pretty much every national parliament was inundated with special interest groups demanding special protections, import controls and preferential treatment for their products. Trade fell as trucks queued at once open border checkpoints, angry drivers waving this stamp and that certificate. Occasionally, fistfights would break out at border checkpoints as frontier police attempted to enforce some new trade barrier dressed up as a health and safety inspection.
Irish, French, Polish and Spanish farmers, used to the regular arrival of CAP payments, demanded that their national governments replace the now defunct CAP, which, because of the massive budget deficits, were unable to comply without putting a Farmer Solidarity Tax on food. That, coupled with their new devalued currencies, meant that the cost of living rose sharply for imported food, consumer goods and of course anyone who relied on imported oil, gas or electricity. Before long, governments were receiving demands for foodstuffs to be subsidised for low income families.
Across the continent, either through desire or in retaliation, former EU citizens were being informed that they had to leave, seek work permits, or were no longer entitled to various social welfare benefits they had been receiving. The British chancellor discovered that his Withdrawal Windfall was eaten up by elderly UK ex-pats returning to Britain for healthcare as Spain started to charge them a much higher health charge than they had paid as EU citizens.
The new German-led European Common Market Area (ECMA) quickly agreed a new tariff free zone, with its member states effectively turning German commercial regulations into national law for pure convenience sake. The ECMA began to suck in investment, as German politicians realised that Germany, through sheer economic gravity, was able to exert influence without having to pay billions into the EU budget.
France’s economy continued to shrink, with farmers rioting over the withdrawal of CAP payments and the New Franc plummeting as Le Pen promised more and more spending and subsidies, and giving serious consideration to the forced expulsion of various classes of refugees to “create employment by vacating jobs for the real French”. When asked by a journalist how, given the high rate of unemployment amongst immigrants, such a policy would free up non-existent jobs, the employment minister asked if “someone in your synagogue” had requested he ask that question.
In the airports, everybody now queued together, refugees and former EU citizens, with their visas and work permits and had their duty free taxed or confiscated. The media revealed occasional stories of Eurosceptic politicians who had kept secret accounts in Berlin to protect their savings from their new home currency devaluations. Across Europe, economic activity was slowly choked off by tariffs, border controls and national subsidies and preferences.
Of course, it wasn’t the end of the world, but it was the end of Europe’s place there.