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Believe It Or Not, Brexit Is Actually Helping The European Union


So when the United Kingdom voted for Brexit nearly three years ago, some thought it might mark the beginning of the end of the European union; instead, it is the U.K. itself that has descended into political chaos, and now many other countries in Europe see Brexit as a cautionary tale. Here's NPR's Frank Langfitt.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: After the 2016 Brexit referendum, many wondered if France, the Netherlands or Italy might follow the U.K.'s lead.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: After the Brexit, is a Frexit (ph) possible?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Recent polls show half of Dutch voters want a referendum on EU membership.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Will we see the end of the EU as we know it?

LANGFITT: But a Brexit domino theory has remained just that. Isabell Hoffman tracks opinion in the EU for Bertelsmann Stiftung, a German independent foundation. She says Brexit hasn't hurt the EU's standing; it's actually helped it.

ISABELL HOFFMAN: We do see a Brexit effect in the numbers when it comes to support for the European Union, actually. They go up in a significant manner, and they stay up ever since.

LANGFITT: Hoffman says support is up 10 percentage points since the referendum.

HOFFMAN: Which means that there are now roughly 70% of people who'd say, we would vote for our country to stay in the European Union.

LANGFITT: The EU's a political union and trading bloc of 28 nations. Observers say more people are rallying to support it these days because it's under siege, and they're wary of leaving because the Brexit process has been a disaster. George Papaconstantinou, who served as Greece's finance minister, says much of Europe has watched Brexit play out with horror.

GEORGE PAPACONSTANTINOU: With disbelief, astonishment - a country which prides itself as having an extremely robust parliamentary system suddenly finds itself completely adrift.

LANGFITT: He says the chaos has served as a warning to other countries that might want to follow Britain's path.

PAPACONSTANTINOU: The whole process of Brexit being so complicated, so difficult, made people realize that you don't leave the EU so easily.

LANGFITT: Euroskeptic parties in France, the Netherlands and Sweden have since backed off calls for Frexit, Nexit (ph) or Swexit (ph) referenda and focused on changing the EU from inside. In the last decade, the EU has weathered an immigration and a financial crisis. Papaconstantinou, who spoke over Skype, says some people appreciate it more these days.

PAPACONSTANTINOU: It's much more than just fearing the divorce. I think that there is a shift in attitudes of people actually believing in some kind of a common destiny in a way that they didn't five years ago.

LANGFITT: But the European Union continues to face big problems - economic growth is slowing, the population is aging, and its critics are gaining more political power.

MATTHEW GOODWIN: I think you can make a convincing case for why the challenges to the EU have gained momentum.

LANGFITT: Matthew Goodwin is a professor of politics at the University of Kent.

GOODWIN: Populism is a bigger issue today for Europe than it was in 2016. We've got populists running Italy, which also happens to be the third-largest economy in the eurozone. You've got breakthroughs for similar parties in Sweden, now Spain, Germany, Austria, now Estonia.

LANGFITT: Goodwin says the EU has the upper hand now, and the Brexit mess has strengthened it. But he thinks the long-term success of the European Union is far from certain. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as the war in Ukraine and its implications in Europe. Langfitt has reported from more than fifty countries and territories around the globe.