Europe's dismay grows over threat of Brexit after British referendum

Europe is scrutinising Britain's general election on 7 May with unprecedented attention. A Conservative victory could mark the beginning of the end of the European Union in its current form. The party promises that if it wins, it will hold a referendum on whether Britain should remain in the EU. A future vote could go either way: a recent poll by Populus said 39% would vote to leave while 40% want to remain.

A "Brexit" would be a disaster for the UK and a loss for the EU, a senior French official tells Newsweek. "Britain would be a much weaker and less influential country. It would still have to comply with EU laws, in order to gain access to the Single European Market, but it would lose the ability to shape those laws." France would much prefer that Britain stays in the EU. "Britain is an asset for the EU. It is a member of the Permanent Five of the UN Security Council and is still one of the world's major foreign policy players."

A Britain outside the EU would grow apart from the United States, the French official said. "Britain's relationship with the United States would be weakened. Britain is important to the US because of its ability to influence debate within the EU, especially on foreign policy. There are two EU member states with a serious military capacity: Britain and France. If Britain left the EU then why would the US care about Britain?"

Conversely, a Brexit would damage the integrity and credibility of the EU when Europe faces unprecedented threats and challenges, says the German Council on Foreign Relations' Julian Rappold. "Britain is the EU's second largest economy and thus contributes greatly to intra-EU trade and to the EU budget. Europe's potential to play a significant role in foreign and defence policy builds largely on the UK contribution to European security architecture. The EU and Europe's place in the world would slip due to a British withdrawal."

However, there is also a growing exasperation with British politicians' incessant – and unrealistic – demands for change in the way the EU works. "London might need to face a fundamental choice about its EU membership, for the sake of the future EU integration process," says Rappold. European leaders will not compromise over core principles such as the free movement of workers. "There is increasing helplessness in European capitals about what Britain really wants. European leaders will not allow a pick-and-choose Europe."

However there could be room for manoeuvre through selective opt-outs, says the French official. "Cameron claims there will be a wholesale negotiation but that is not going to happen. Nobody else wants sweeping changes. The way forward is to negotiate opt-outs or exceptions for Britain."

Central European leaders also view a Brexit with alarm. The EU would be worse off without Britain, says Radek Sikorski, Oxford-educated speaker of the Polish parliament. "We hope that it does not come to a referendum, and if it does, Britain will stay. Otherwise we would miss you."

Instead of talking about leaving the EU, Britain should focus on more integration. "I would like to see more integration, for example in defence, with Britain leading the effort," says Sikorski. Britain brings an enormous amount to the EU, he believes. "A global outlook, practical good sense, a commitment to market solutions, effective officials and good English for drafting documents."

A Brexit is viewed with alarm in Budapest, and could have a catastrophic spill-over effect across central Europe, says Peter Kreko of Budapest think-tank Political Capital. "British experts, politicians, diplomats and firms are having an impact in the EU. Joining the EU is a one-way road. You cannot turn around without doing harm."

Britain's concerns about the gap between the EU elite and voters are shared but the answer is constructive engagement, says former British Europe minister Denis MacShane, author of Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe. A Brexit would harm all of Europe and the United States.

"There would be considerable confusion, if not chaos. A Brexit would encourage other separatists like France's Front National, mark the end of the post-war settlement and herald a return to a more nationalistic and populist Europe, one that harks back to pre-war years."