The rest of the European Union nations are looking at the possibility of a British departure from the bloc with disbelief, trepidation and anguish.
But they are also preparing to retaliate.
If Britons do vote in a referendum on Thursday to leave the European Union, they can expect a tough and unforgiving response, with capitals across the Continent intent on deterring other countries from following the British example, European officials and analysts said.
In other words, Britain will be made to suffer for its choice.
With other issues pressing, including Greek debt, the migrant crisis and terrorism, the largest and most powerful European nations will want clarity, and are not likely to tolerate a long period of post-referendum confusion.
“In is in — out is out,”
the powerful German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, told Spiegel magazine.
“I hope and believe that the British will ultimately decide against Brexit. The withdrawal of Britain would be a heavy loss for Europe.”
The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, spoke apocalyptically about a British exit, or “Brexit,” to the German tabloid Bild.
He said all members of the European Union would suffer, as would the post war structure of Europe that had kept the peace.
“Why is it so dangerous?”
Mr. Tusk asked.
“No one can foresee what the long-term consequences would be. As a historian, I fear that Brexit could be the beginning of the destruction of not only the E.U., but also of Western political civilization.”
Britain would face at least seven years of limbo during painful negotiations about a new relationship with the bloc, Mr. Tusk said.
Preparing for a British vote to withdraw,France and Germany are debating the immediate announcement of a joint initiative on European security, perhaps an operational command headquarters, to show, at least symbolically, that the European Union remains solid and will continue to progress without Britain.
But Germany has rejected some ideas from the European Commission, the permanent bureaucracy in Brussels, to respond by moving quickly toward more European political or fiscal integration, understanding that with Spanish elections this month and French and German elections next year, “more Europe” is not what voters want.
And no government wants treaty change, which would prompt more referendums at a time when populist, anti-Brussels sentiments are running strong across the Continent.
By: STEVEN ERLANGER