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The Straits Times says

Getting European project back on track

In its determination to elbow Britain sharply out of the door, the European Union should not overlook the pressing need to properly understand why 52 per cent of British voters wanted to leave. That is vital to ensure Brexit does not trigger further break-ups, as lobbied for by politicians on the left and right in France, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands and other states.

The prospect of a disintegrating union would dismay all who see the European project as a worthy one. In its essence, it cleaves to the vision of an inclusive, multicultural and connected world based on fair rules and sound values, as articulated in its founding treaties. The death of these ideals would diminish all mankind, especially if rampant nationalism follows in its wake. Any secessionist ripple beyond Europe would be a matter of great concern to Asia as well, in particular, China.

Eurosceptics straining to exit allow the negatives to cloud the positives. When the penny does drop, it might be too late, as Britain learnt after the Brexit referendum. There, the perceived benefits of separation were rooted in as much myth as the costs of unification. Figures aired of what Britain might save from giving up its membership were misleading. And the outcry over officious EU regulation was often false - there was never a ban on curved bananas or vacuum cleaners, for example. Although an effort two decades ago to have chocolate made exclusively with cocoa butter was misguided, many rules serve the common good - like laws to increase energy efficiency and reduce the use of plastic bags.

However, what matters is voter perception and the EU failed to correct it. It would be sticking its head in the sand if it also does not address widespread concerns over immigration, jobs and income inequality. To help shape a better European future, the EU should leverage Brexit to find sufficient common ground among members to undertake bold reforms aimed at assuaging public unease. "An ever closer union among the peoples of Europe" - envisaged by founding members - is seen by many as more of a bane than a boon, for concentrating power in Brussels and leaving people with little control over their destiny.

Often under-appreciated are the decades of peace ushered in by the EU. Younger generations can only dimly imagine how the two world wars, caused by tensions between the European powers, had left the continent in ruins. Stability helped Europe to grow into a prosperous region that exercises clout on the world stage - something no individual member state would ever have. Splintered, puny European nations would be prey to big powers, especially an intransigent Russia which would like nothing better than to see multilateralism wither, so it can freely extend its reach. These are geopolitical risks that loom not just over Europe but also the rest of the world.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 02, 2016, with the headline 'Getting European project back on track'. Print Edition | Subscribe