Ever since the formal establishment of the European Union in 1993, it seems like there has always been a section of academics and international relations theorists who predict the inevitable failure of the European experiment and the breakup of the EU. That contingent has clearly grown and become more vocal in recent years as the EU faces its first real test with the Great Recession. The opposition to the European Union has expressed itself in even greater numbers recently with the recent European parliament elections. Anti-EU parties such as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the Front National in France, and the Five Star Movement in Italy performed very well, reflecting the distrust the public has in the future of the EU. This makes the possibility of a breakup of the European Union even more likely in the near future. However, what would the breakup of the European Union actually look like?
The multiple referenda throughout Europe in 2014 should have been a sign of a worsening situation on the continent, but many did not see it that way. Crimea’s referendum was certainly fraudulent and those in Catalonia and Veneto sparked little to no further action despite overwhelming votes in favor of independence. Scotland was the only region where a free and fair referendum had the chance of being accepted by the European community. That vote came down squarely on the unionist side with 58 percent voting in favor of staying part of the United Kingdom. The EU economy as a whole continued to grow, boosting confidence in the European experiment. However, Italy entered a brief recession in early 2014. With the recession, Italy’s Five Star Movement gained even more popularity as the center-right coalition struggled. Along with the M5S, other Euroskeptic parties such as Britain’s UKIP gained support in the European and national parliaments.
Italy’s economy began recovering in the fourth quarter of 2014, and the EU continued down the road to recovery for the next two years. The recovery was shaky though. Tensions with Russia continued to simmer, despite the Geneva Treaty recognizing Russian control of Crimea being signed in April of 2015. The renewed threat of Russia led to calls from the eastern European members of the EU for a greater unified military presence. Germany, France, and Poland led the movement for a pan-European defense force, but it created a backlash among the poorer Mediterranean nations. The French and British public also expressed widespread anger toward a European defense force, staging protests in Paris, London, and other cities. Another global economic downturn that lasted for sixteen months in 2017 and 2018 did nothing to help ease the fears of Euroskeptics, and plunged many countries into their second debt crisis in a decade. Spain, Italy, and Greece were hit the hardest by the recession, and the larger economies were less eager than in the Great Recession to bail out the struggling nations. Many politicians in the more stable northern economies claimed that the crises in the Mediterranean nations was purely their own fault, as they had evidently learned nothing about budget concerns from the previous crisis.
The road to the European Union’s breaking point was accelerated in January 2018. Greece, having gone through several governments in the 2010s, was a constant threat of economic instability for the European Union, and in 2018 its government declared bankruptcy. Greece’s bankruptcy triggered the worst debt crisis in the developed world since World War II. Just as Mexico was the first domino to fall in the Latin American debt crisis of the late 1970s, Greece’s bankruptcy triggered other bankruptcies in Italy, Croatia, and Cyprus as the value of the euro fell. The Mediterranean debt crisis was a major shakeup for the European experiment. With European economies reeling from the crisis, many governments called for a revision of the European treaty framework to tighten the rules of economic solvency for being a member of the EU and to clarify the procedure for expelling a member nation from the Union.
The renegotiation of the terms of the EU triggered protests in both the United Kingdom and Greece. Greece felt that it was inevitably going to be the first on the chopping block under the new terms, and it was right. However, it was not the first country to leave the European Union. That position would fall to the United Kingdom. With growing influence by the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) as well as promises of a referendum on the European Union made by both Conservative and Labour, it came as no surprise when the Conservative-UKIP government elected in 2020 called for the vote. By a narrow margin, the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in 2021. As a counter, the SNP that had dominated the Scottish parliament over the past decade held its own referendum, on independence from the UK. With promises by European Union members that it would be fast tracked to join, the same year that Britain left the EU, Scotland left the UK and rejoined the EU as an independent republic.
The new Treaty of Warsaw’s rules expanded the powers granted to the European Council by the Treaty of the European Union in regards to suspension of rights of a member state within the EU. The Treaty of Warsaw established that a member state could be expelled from the EU following three steps. First, the persistent violation of the responsibilities of the member state had to be acknowledged. As per the Treaty of European Union, this required unanimity in the European Council excepting the offending state. After the violation was acknowledged, majority votes in the European Council and the European Parliament were required to expel the member state from the EU. Amid the Mediterranean Debt Crisis, Greece was expelled from the European Union in 2022.
As the southern European economies continued a sluggish recovery in the early 2020s, the consensus among much of the population of these countries was that the harsh financial regulations imposed by the EU were to blame for their countries’ economic situations. Anti-EU sentiment continued to rise, culminating with the Five Star Movement gaining a majority of the vote in the 2023 Italian general election. Meanwhile, the frustration with Madrid and Rome in Catalonia and Veneto had escalated and became fully fledged separatist movements. In 2024, a decade after the Spanish government in Madrid had ignored a Catalan referendum on independence, another vote on independence took place. This time, instead of a small majority, 84% of the population of Catalonia voted in favor of independence in a clear message to the Spanish government. Nonetheless, Spain refused to address the referendum calling it illegal under the Spanish constitution. The European heads of state, led by Scotland, saw the rejection of the Catalan referendum as the last straw and proclaimed Spain in violation of both its economic responsibilities within the EU and in human rights violations against Catalonia. That year, Spain was expelled and after a tense standoff, Catalonia was recognized as an independent state and began the application process for joining the European Union, retaining its status in EFTA and the Schengen Area.
With Spain, and Greece kicked out of the European Union, the other nations in the Mediterranean soon began to worry themselves. In Italy, the response was with even more euroskepticism. The Five Star Movement held the prime ministership, having largely replaced Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party as the leader of Italy’s right wing coalition. The prime minister of Italy called for a referendum for Italy’s position in the European Union. However, unlike Spain, the prime minister also guaranteed to hold and respect referendums on independence at the same time. Spain’s global reputation had greatly fallen after the fallout from the Catalan declaration of independence, and Italy did not want to suffer the same fate. The referendum on Italian participation in the European Union was held in June of 2026. Along with the question of the EU, the question of independence was raised in the regions of Veneto, Friuli, Trentino, South Tyrol, Aosta, and Sardinia. The votes in Sardinia and Aosta rejected independence; Aosta by a slim margin; but the other four regions voted for independence. Meanwhile, Italy chose with a 62% vote in favor to exit the European Union, the next on the course of an EU exit from the Mediterranean. The new states of Venice, comprised of Veneto and Friuli, and Tyrol, comprised of Trentino and South Tyrol, rejoined the European Union the following year.
Over the next three years, the European Union continued to shrink, with Portugal, Malta, and Cyprus exiting. However, this was to be the end of its size reduction for the time being. While the economies of many countries in Eastern Europe experienced turbulence, their relationship with the European Union remained strong. The good standing of countries such as Poland and the Baltic nations within the EU was in no small part due to the increased tensions brought about by the Russian resurgence. After Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko’s death in 2023, the military junta that succeeded Lukashenko arranged for Russia’s annexation of Belarus. Russia also began to exert increased influence over the Central Asian nations, after China turned its gaze toward the region and began substantial investments there.
Ironically, the contraction of the size of the European Union also quickened its further integration. Russia’s reawakening as a global power prompted proposals, especially from the eastern fringe of the union, for more coordination on diplomatic and military matters. In 2033, a new, more robust EU military organization spearheaded by France was created. Based off of the existing structures of the European Defense Agency, the new European Operations Force built upon previous missions conducted by the EU in the Central African Republic, Mali, Equatorial Guinea, and elsewhere. Additionally, the Foreign Affairs Council, the body that brings together the foreign ministers of the EU member states, was granted the sole authority over the EU’s foreign policy, with the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs becoming officially the Foreign Minister of the EU.