Is Brexit a warning shot or a mortal wound for the European project? “What is past is prologue,” wrote Shakespeare in The Tempest, a play about the fragility of life and human nature. “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.” In Europe, the past is always prologue, but certainly today, it created the platform of the tempest of political fragility and uncertainty ahead.

The record of European integration has been described in various ways. It is a bicycle that needs constant peddling to avoid collapse and cannot go backwards. It has been defined as a process of widening and deepening, in which the very act of pursuing that process defines the goal; “Der Weg ist das Ziel,” or the means of pursuing European integration are the goal itself. On the one hand, that formulation was useful in some ways to avoid having to define the details of the final parameters of a more integrated Europe; many of these details have always remained contentious. On the other hand, that approach also opened up room for the dangers Europe faces today.

Just as the figures in The Tempest become embroiled in a power struggle, so are the players within the EU, now engaged in a struggle over power in the framework of the very institutions they have created themselves.

For more than half a century, the track record of the European Union has displayed both ambition and success in crafting new forms of international cooperation among now twenty-eight member nation-states. The sheer number of members who have voluntarily associated themselves with the European project, let alone many others on the wait list, is testimony to the tantalizing idea which has become a reality. While there is less agreement on the final outcome of the project, be it an international organization, a state, or another form of shared sovereignty, stakeholders nevertheless share a consensus of the project’s value. After the horror of too many wars, leaders in Europe believed more integration would deliver shared economic prosperity and usher in political peace. They were right. There is no squabble among European political elites regarding the value of European integration. The challenge lies in their ability to explain that process to their respective constituencies.

Since the inception of the European project, numerous declarations have attempted to explain its existence and its value. Frequent and lengthy reports and working papers have also detailed the various entities within the EU machinery. Despite all these efforts, a clear statement on the purpose of the EU and a rule of measurement for its success seems to have been lost. As honorable as the statements of proclamation are, they do not address the need for the union to validate its existence, one that is measured by its ability to solve immediate problems, such as sovereign fiscal deficit, coping with millions of incoming refugees, and constructing a common defense mechanism.

Before the end of the Cold War, European integration served not only to strengthen economies across Europe, but also to lend strength to the West in the confrontation with the Soviet Union. After the Iron Curtain came down, many countries that had been deprived of the chance to join the European project were offered membership to enjoy the benefits of the union. And it appeared that the benefits of being part of the project outweighed the costs.

However, during the past few years that assumption has changed. The limits and challenges of the European project—concerns about the growing size of the EU, the capacities of its institutions, and the quality of its leadership, began to take central stage. There are many questions about the project with no clear answers. How many countries may become EU members according to what criteria and with what goals in mind? How capable is governance in an expanding Union? At the same time, in the struggle over national policy challenges and choices, member states have started to debate these questions openly and fiercely. Some European leaders have even acted in contradiction to the stated EU benchmarks or have exploited their constituencies’ frustration with the EU to mobilize their voters. Certainly, Brexit serves as the most recent illustration of these troubling trends. But, more alarmingly, these trends and uncertainties are spreading throughout Europe and are infecting the political dialogue on both sides of the Atlantic.
The EU is facing an uncertain future. In order to create a clear path, the visionaries of the project need to take a close look at its past. They need to identify what parts of that legacy has caused the crisis we see today, and what parts have continued to create opportunities. The path of European integration has never been without setbacks. But the dangers today undermine the belief that there is a greater value in sustaining the project than abandoning it. There has been nothing inevitable about the European Union. But those who dreamed of it seventy years ago could not have believed it would have come this far to fail.

At the end of The Tempest, Prospero declares that “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” The EU is both a dream and a reality; but today it is at a critical point where it needs to revitalize the link between both.