The European Union is “one election away” from collapse given that French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has promised a referendum on the EU, the former Polish foreign minister has said.

Addressing delegates at the IPE annual conference and awards in Berlin today, Radek Sikorski said that if Le Pen, leader of the Front National, won the presidential election in France next year, she had promised a referendum on the country’s membership of the EU.

“There is no EU without France,” he said. “So yes, we have a real problem.”

If she doesn’t win, “then the EU27 will survive, and the UK will have done something extraordinary”, he added.

“For 500 years, the basic principle of Britain’s foreign policy was to prevent the continent of Europe from uniting to the exclusion of Britain,” he said. “And now Britain is doing it voluntarily.” 

Speaking about the current “wave of populism” in Europe and the US, he said this was “not about money”.

With respect to the Brexit vote, he said it was down to “three decades of mis-education” in the UK about the EU and how it works, British politicians having been “too cowardly” to stand up to the euro-sceptic British press, and the decision, in 2004, by then prime minister Tony Blair not to use the UK’s derogation on movement of people and to instead open the UK labour market to Polish and other Eastern European citizens.

“So you got more of us than you bargained for,” he said.

The Brexit vote was also in part a protest vote against London becoming too unaffordable and against its financial services “becoming too successful for their own good”, said Sikorski.

He said the UK government was “still delusional” about what it would be able to achieve in the exit negotiations and that British politicians did not seem to appreciate that “we on the Continent have politics, too”.

Some deals are possible, and some are impossible, he said.

The notion of Brexit as Britain getting access to the Single Market while restricting immigration “is not do-able”, he said.

“In fact, I’m not sure any kind of do-able is the timeframe available,” he added.

The odds are increasing of what he preferred to describe as a “clean Brexit” rather than a “hard Brexit”, he said.

Sikorski said three things linked the rise of populism as reflected in Poland, the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s victory.

First, there is the role of the media – the dissemination of fake news on social media and the failure of traditional media to counter this.

Second, there is a perception of a loss of control about “who lives in your territory”.

And third, there is a perception that capitalism, “as it has evolved, has ceased to be fair”.

He said: “We need to fix these three vulnerabilities – the openness of our cyberspace, the openness of our borders and the perception of unfairness of our economies – because, if we don’t do it, somebody else will, but they will do it incompetently, and the cost will be much higher.”