Britain Is Leaving. Europe Has to Change.

HAMBURG, Germany — It’s happening: The United Kingdom is leaving the European Union on Friday. After decades of steady enlargement, the organization will lose its first member.

What can be done to prevent the continent splitting further apart? The question is at least being posed by some. President Emmanuel Macron of France has called for an unsparing conference on the future of Europe, the details of which the commission set out last week. The aim is to allow for an “open, inclusive and transparent debate.”

Well, here is a proposal that might not go down well in Brussels: Make the European Union more flexible. Or watch it break.

Why the radicalism? Because the nagging core question for the bloc — what are the advantages of an often unwieldy union of 27 countries over a single nation-state? — has not vanished just because the British have answered it for themselves. Crises over both the euro and migration have cast lasting doubts over the union’s fundamental promise, that pooling individual sovereignty would result in greater sovereignty for all members of the club.

At least in the eastern part of the Continent, more and more Europeans want less Europe. The support for right-wing, populist parties in the region shows that love for the West has turned into disillusionment. In 2016, the foreign minister of Poland, Witold Waszczykowski, complained of “25 years of leftist and liberal indoctrination.” In 2017, Maria Schmidt, one of Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary’s favorite intellectuals, gave “Willkommenskultur,” Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany’s idea that Europe should welcome newly arriving migrants, a roasting. “I think it is just bullshit,” Ms. Schmidt said.

This crack has anything but healed, partly because powerful Western Europeans like Ms. Merkel or Mr. Macron do not seem to care much about their frenemies in Warsaw, Budapest or Prague. The East’s demagoguery is met by the West’s condescension.

Tragically, this is very much the repeat of a mistake made in the years before the Brexit vote. When I asked German diplomats in 2014 how they reacted to criticism of the bloc’s performance by Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, they shrugged and replied that they were sitting down with their British counterparts in “therapy sessions.” The thought that the European Union itself might also need therapy did not cross their minds.

But what kind of therapy does it need? Let’s try an analysis first. The former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt used to say that the bloc simply grew too large to successfully bundle together the interests of all its member states. When the union consisted of six countries, decision-making was easy. When it grew to 12 that became harder. Today, with nearly 30, it might just have reached operational overstretch.

Which is why a cure has to address the root of the problem: the outmoded binary choice of either all-in or all-out membership. As it currently stands, a European country can either be a member state with full voting rights that is expected to take part in all efforts at further integration. Or it cannot be a member at all. Rather than sticking to this all-or-nothing choice, Europe should allow flexible memberships or — to use a term hated in Brussels — “à la carte” arrangements: instead of the full menu, a little bit of this, a little bit of that.

A country would like to take part in more military integration yet stay out the eurozone? Why not? And why not be a member of the single market without having to subscribe to Europe’s asylum policy? There are of course things that cannot be open to pick-and-choose, like participation in the single market itself and the obligation to abide by its so-called “four freedoms” — of goods, services, capital and people. Switzerland and Norway, for instance, are not members of the European Union but are part of the bloc’s single market. They have no involvement in certain policies, for example for agriculture and fisheries, and of course they have no say on political questions.

In other words: If states accept certain inviolable conditions, then they should be free to abstain from certain policies they regard as disadvantages. It is often said that this runs counter to the idea of club, in which rights necessarily correspond with duties. But would you want to join a club that will let you play tennis only if you also enroll for boxing, gambling, fishing — and a cooking course too?

A “Team European Union” of various coalitions of the willing could produce more clout than one big coalition of the half-willing. It would also have strategic upsides: Flexible membership would allow for a bespoke approach to the Western Balkan states. For as long as they don’t fulfill the accession criteria, they still could be more closely associated with the single market, preventing them from falling prey to the encroachment of Russia and China. What’s more, an opt-in union could open ways to reintegrate Britain, should public opinion on Brexit shift one day.

Sure, there’s a huge risk in such a radical reform. Once opened, the complex legal body of the union’s treaties could face the fate of Humpty Dumpty: All the king’s horses and all the king’s men might not be able to put it together again.

Yet there is also an enormous danger in doing nothing. Imagine if Brexit does not reduce Britain to misery but instead leaves the country relatively unscathed. In that case, the very idea of Europe — that the combined power of many states results in more power for the individual state — could suffer another major blow.

And this time, it could be terminal.

Jochen Bittner (@JochenBittner) is a co-head of the debate section for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a contributing opinion writer.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

Leave a Reply