The European project was always bound to fail. Europe is a continent riven by geographic barriers. It has spent two millennia not only indulging in massive and constant internal wars, but also keeping written records of them, informing each generation of all the times their forebears were wronged. Over the centuries, great empires have risen and fallen, leaving behind distinct groups of people with different histories, languages and cultures. Any project attempting to fuse these disparate cultures into one monolithic state over the course of just 70 years was by its very nature doomed. It would inevitably encounter insurmountable levels of nationalistic resistance, and eventually the project would stall. That is the point at which we now find ourselves.
Crises abound, and though they all have different facades, each stems from the same underlying issue: Citizens ultimately prize their national and regional identities over the supranational dream. The sovereign debt crisis and repeating Grexit scares, born of the introduction of the euro in 1999, have exposed Northern Europe's unwillingness to subsidize the south. The Brexit referendum, scheduled for June, can trace its roots to the 2004 enlargement of the European Union, and the ensuing wave of Polish migration to the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, amid the ongoing immigration crisis, national leaders are appeasing their populations by bypassing European rules and re-erecting border controls to stem the flow of refugees across their territory. In all of these situations, the same factors are at work: The driving forces within Europe are national in nature, and countries will ultimately put their own interests first.
Today's problems were both predictable and predicted. The next step, however, is harder to foresee. Having identified a system's inherent flaw, one can very well state that it is unsustainable, but unfortunately the flaw provides no guide as to the exact circumstances of the system's end. There are still many different ways that the demise of the European Union's current form could come about. For example, the project could unravel via market forces, as it nearly did in 2012 when investors tested the commitment of the core to save the periphery and found it to be (barely) willing to do so. Or a disaffected populace could elect a nationalist party such as France's National Front, which could either lead the country out of the European Union or make the bloc so unmanageable that it ceases to function. Perhaps the most likely scenario at this point would be for the European Union to survive as a ghost of its former self, with its laws ignored and stripped back to the extent that it holds only a loose grip on its members.
Where Integration Will Persist
The exact circumstances of the European project's end are not yet clear, but there are certain fixed, underlying truths that are sure to outlast the European Union's current form. With them, a forecast can still be made of the shape of things to come. These fundamental realities stem from deeper, unchanging forces that will bring countries together according to their most basic goals; they are the same forces that limited the European project's lifespan in the first place. By looking at these underlying factors, one can predict which countries will emerge from a weakened or collapsed European Union with close ties, and which are likely to drift apart in pursuit of their own interests once they are freed from the binding force of the European Union and its integrationist ideals.
The best place to start is the Benelux region. Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg have long played a key role in European geopolitics, situated as they are on the flat and traversable land between Europe's two great Continental powers, France and Germany. Indeed, it was in the Benelux region that the European project began. Belgium and Luxembourg formed an economic union in 1921, and talks began for a customs union with the Netherlands in 1944, before the end of World War II. But it was World War II itself that really gave birth to the European Union as the Benelux countries combined with their two flanking giants and Italy to create a bloc that would prevent a reoccurrence of such destructive conflict. In the 70 years that had elapsed since German unification, France had endured three invasions, and all the members of the fledgling union suffered greatly as a result. Today, 70 years later and without a reoccurrence of catastrophic conflict, their strategy appears to have worked.
Thus the Benelux, France and Germany will be motivated to continue their integration efforts. Caught between two economic powers, the Benelux will want to secure their friendship. Meanwhile, France and Germany's rivalry will also draw them together. However, the fateful fact here is that the Franco-German relationship has been one of the major fault lines in the current European Union, meaning that a smaller version of the bloc will be similarly flawed.