The vote in Britain to leave the European Union lays bare the most dangerous obstacle confronting the world's most ambitious economic and political bloc: the voice of the European people.

The elites who forged the union - a sprawling labour and consumer market of more than 500 million - have for decades pursued an agenda of deepening integration.

French bakers, German bankers and Italian restaurateurs would find themselves beholden to Brussels - the administrative capital now viewed with the same amount of voter sympathy in the towns and villages of Europe as Washington in the American heartland.

The British result amounted to a shock because of its sweep - an outright pullout from the EU. Yet when lesser questions on European integration have been put to the democratic test, voters in France, Ireland and the Netherlands have rejected them.

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Alarmed leaders fearing a domino effect of exit votes that could unravel the bloc are vowing a swift reinvention of a cumbersome, complicated and often confusing institution that the average European loves to hate.

Even those who support the EU's lofty ideals concede a profound disconnect between the bureaucrats in Brussels calling for "more Europe" - a slogan meaning more integration - and the millions of citizens they serve who say they want less.

"A jolt is necessary," French President François Hollande, who lands in Berlin tonight for crisis talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, said in the aftermath of the British referendum.

He added, "The EU must be understood and controlled by its citizens. I will do everything to secure profound change rather than decline."

On the streets of south Berlin, in the lower-middle-class neighbourhood of Rudow, German bakeries hawk pretzels and strudels as drivers - prompted by the European football tournament - cruise by in cars adorned with German flags. In a district much changed by the force of EU labour laws, the black, red and yellow of Team Germany are competing with the red and white banners of more recent arrivals from Poland.

This corner of the progressive German capital has seen more and more voters support the Alternative for Germany party, a populist movement that recently published a manifesto calling for the dissolution of the EU. Ralf Gotthardt, a 58-year-old retired bus driver smoking a cigarette in front of the local supermarket, offered a picture of the resentment threatening the bloc.

"I understand the British," he said. "Decisions are just being made over our heads, and we need a referendum. The English did the right thing."

He blames the EU for just about everything sub-par in Rudow. For the non-German-made washing machines in local stores that "break after only two years". For goods and services that seem to cost more than they used to. For the EU's failure to come up with a real plan for handling a record wave of migrants from the Middle East. For crime - which he sees as the byproduct of the free flow of movement across European borders.

Even before the British vote, a poll by the Pew Research Centre suggested the extent of the citizen backlash. The populations, if not the governments, in Eastern European nations such as Poland and Hungary are the bloc's strongest supporters. But the French, the poll showed, actually dislike the EU more than the British. And a majority of Greeks and pluralities of Swedes, Dutch, Germans, Italians and French said they wanted some EU powers returned to their national governments.

For generations, the continent's citizens saw the push for European integration - born of the ashes of World War II - as a bulwark against more violence.

The fall of the Soviet Union was celebrated as a triumph for grand Western projects like the one in Brussels. So leaders pushed forward with even tighter integration, sweeping away internal borders, then embracing the common euro currency, which made it possible to save money in one nation and spend in another.

Decisions are just being made over our heads, and we need a referendum. The English did the right thing

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But leaders were reluctant to hand over the real political power to Brussels, leading to the debt and migration crises still dogging Europe today.

When voters in France and the Netherlands rejected a proposed EU constitution in 2005, EU leaders came back two years later and implemented many of the same changes through a different legal path that did not require voter approval. That helped fuel a sense that the EU's expanding ambition had a life of its own, unchecked by national will.

Also unchecked, critics say, are EU rules. Bakers in Scandinavia rebelled in 2013 when the EU tried to limit the amount of cinnamon in baked goods to 15 milligrams per kilogram of dough, after studies found that excessive consumption of a chemical found in the spice caused liver damage. British voters loved to mock regulations about "bendy bananas," a requirement that bananas be "free from malformation or abnormal curvature".

"We must ask the question of whether so many decisions need to be taken in Brussels," said Günter Verheugen, a former EU commissioner from Germany. "It's simply too much. I don't think this is what the people of Europe want."

In Brussels, at an exhibition at the granite-and-steel European Parliament building devoted to explaining the EU's byzantine workings to the public, visitors on Sunday traced the arc of EU history in a long hallway. Each of the 28 member states had its own section.

One large group of visitors to the centre - known as the Parlamentarium - were students getting masters' degrees in European studies - essentially a graduate programme in how the EU works. Many aspired to working inside the bloc's institutions and were devoting more than a year to studying the intricate patchwork of commissions, directorates, councils and Parliament.

It is, perhaps, telling that a higher degree is needed to fully grasp the EU - a fact that has isolated it from many of the citizens it serves.

"I think it would be better if people understood how the European Union worked, because then they could understand what it's actually doing," said Nathalie Nied, 24, a graduate student from Germany in the program that is taught in French, German and English.

Inside Brussels' corridors of power, there is a furious argument underway about how to respond to the British vote. Some leaders say that the rejection should inspire a wholesale rethinking of how the EU relates to its citizens and perhaps a permanent trimming of its ambitions. But others say that the best course is to keep doing what they have always done: to push forward with integration and pooled sovereignty, in the faith that a perfected project will prove its worth to ordinary voters.

"There's this anti-elite thing, populist movements, facts do not count," said Elmar Brok, a German who has been a member of the European Parliament since 1980. "You have to do what is needed; do not be afraid of the populists. You have to prove that their accusations are wrong."

The European flag flies in front of Germany's parliament building the Reichstag in Berlin. Photo / AP
The European flag flies in front of Germany's parliament building the Reichstag in Berlin. Photo / AP
7 REASONS WHY SOME EUROPEANS HATE THE EU

1 Pay for EU bureaucrats
Even as individual nations across Europe have had to impose grinding austerity measures, including slashing pay for government workers, most European Union employees get paid generous wages with special, minimal taxes. The Telegraph - an anti-EU newspaper - found in 2014 that many mid-level EU workers were taking home more money than British Prime Minister David Cameron.

2 Wasteful travel
By treaty, the European Parliament can only meet in full session in Strasbourg, France. But most of the EU's operation is in Brussels. So one week a month, the whole apparatus - legislators, support staff, lobbyists, journalists and everyone else, 10,000 people in all - travels five hours to Strasbourg. It's as though Congress could only pass laws one week a month - and it needed to do it in Cleveland. But this Parliament has 751 members. Oh, and it can't propose legislation - it can only approve legislation that comes from the non-elected European Commission. The cost of maintaining two parliamentary seats is estimated at US$200 million a year.

3 Overreaching regulation
In Britain, the famous "bendy banana" came to be a symbol of Brussels regulatory overreach, when Brussels set guidelines that bananas should be "free from malformation or abnormal curvature". Those advocating a British departure from the EU said Britons could decide for themselves how bent their bananas could be.

4 Lack of accountability
The big decisions in the EU get hammered out behind closed doors, whether it's inside the European Commission or at meetings of EU leaders or ministers. Unlike legislators in national legislatures, where much of the sausage-making happens in the open, EU leaders bargain in private, then announce their decisions afterward, leaving journalists to play detective to figure out who advocated in the closed conclave.

5 Ignoring rejections from voters
The EU has a long history of absorbing national ballot-box defeats, then moving onward to achieve roughly the same result through other means. When voters in France and the Netherlands rejected an EU constitution in 2005, EU leaders came back two years later with the Lisbon Treaty, which implemented many of the same changes but through a different legal path that didn't require checking with voters first.

6 A Babylon of costly translations
Depending on how you read it, you might find the EU's tendency to translate nearly everything it does into all 24 of its official languages a testimony to its internationalist glory or a wasteful use of resources. By EU custom, all public EU documents are translated into every language. All high-level EU meetings are the same way. The European Commission says it employs 1750 linguists, 600 full-time interpreters and 3000 freelancers.

7 Unnecessary bureaucracy
Every EU member state gets to appoint a commissioner - a politician charged with administering an agency. But as the EU expanded, it needed to dream up new cabinet agencies to match the number of members. So it has one commission for international cooperation and development, another for trade, another for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness, another for economic and financial affairs, and another for internal market, industry, entrepreneurship and small and medium businesses.