London is in a daze. At the posh bars in Soho, at the kebab shops on Edgware Road and in the halls of Westminster, conversations circle around the incomprehensible fact that the United Kingdom voted on June 23 to leave the European Union. It seems astonishing how little force it took to rip the fabric of the Western world. No war was needed. No great depression. Just the inchoate resentments of British voters who felt cheated and estranged from the European project. Their anger had festered for years at the fringes of mainstream politics before it erupted in the form of 17 million ballots, all shouting in unison, Out!
The echoes will be heard for years, because while Britain is leaving, all of Europe will have to pay the price. Stock markets plummeted globally, wiping out a record $3 trillion in two days of trading and risking another great recession just as the last one was starting to fade. Across the Continent, populists responded to the Brexit referendum by calling for ones of their own. In Brussels, European leaders convened an emergency summit to try and fend off the contagion. Russia watched from the wings with barely concealed delight. The U.S., already struggling with the West’s receding influence around the world, now has to cope with the departure of its closest ally from the table of E.U. decisionmakers.
For those who abhor the E.U., the news was enough to declare the beginning of the end for Europe as we know it. “I think within 10 years, the European Union will be deconstructed,” Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s right-wing National Front, told TIME a few days after the vote. With the E.U. now in uncharted waters, optimists clung to the hope that Western society would carry on. “The European Union is strong enough to cope with the departure of Britain,” Chancellor Angela Merkel told the German Parliament on June 28.
Of course, the optimists believed this shock would never happen. On June 16, exactly a week before the referendum, the noisy, rancorous and often misleading campaign for the country to leave the E.U. nearly fell apart. Center-left lawmaker Jo Cox, one of the most charismatic advocates for the U.K. to remain in the E.U., was murdered on the streets of her electoral district. The man charged with shooting and stabbing her to death, Thomas Mair, would later say in court: “My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”
Many hoped that Cox’s tragic killing would at least serve as a wake-up call for Britain. As the polls opened on June 23, most pundits, academics, bookmakers and politicians were confident that economic good sense, if not the more abstract ideals that hold Europe together, would prevail over the fearful calls to retreat behind the English Channel in the face of migration and globalization. But they were wrong. A majority of British voters–51.9% of them–cast their ballots in favor of leaving. Even in Cox’s district–which she won easily in the 2015 general election–55% of voters rejected her calls for Britain to stay. The rejection of Europe was beyond dispute.
Much of the blame for Brexit has fallen into Prime Minister David Cameron’s lap. It was his idea last year to call the referendum in the first place–an epic gamble with the future of the country that was meant to mollify E.U. bashers in his Conservative Party and strengthen his push for re-election. It achieved those ends–the Conservatives won an outright majority in Parliament last May–and like most of the British elite, Cameron campaigned for the U.K. to remain. But his arguments–weighed down by the fact that Cameron had never been a fan of the E.U.–felt timid: better to stay within a flawed alliance than risk the uncertainty of breaking away. The halfhearted efforts by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to back Remain were even less convincing.
The morning after the vote, a shell-shocked Cameron was forced to announce his resignation, leaving the next government–which likely won’t be in place until October–to put out the fires Brexit has started. The worst are burning in the U.K. itself. The value of the British pound dropped to its lowest point in more than 30 years, and both the Conservatives and Labour may soon find themselves without leaders at the same time. In Scotland, where 62% of voters favored Remain, the government has said it will not be dragged out of the E.U. against the will of the Scottish people. That could mean another referendum on Scottish independence just two years after Scotland voted solidly to stay in the U.K. Even the fragile peace in Northern Ireland is at risk.
And the U.K. hasn’t even started the process of breaking away. The E.U.’s protocol for such a split, which has never before been invoked, begins only once a government makes a formal request to secede. After that, the British will have two years to agree on new terms for their relations with Europe, most importantly on trade. European leaders–worried that other rebellious nations might be emboldened by the British–are not likely to be generous. At a summit in Brussels on June 29, E.U. leaders made it clear that the U.K. could not continue to enjoy the benefits of membership without accepting some of the burdens. “It is not an amicable divorce,” Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the E.U.’s executive body, the European Commission, remarked on June 25. “But it was also not an intimate love affair.”
That’s because the U.K. was always a hesitant partner to the E.U.–or as the London political scientist Simon Hix puts it more directly, “it is a festering sore” on the European project. By consistently challenging the E.U.’s rules, the British have managed to win all kinds of exceptions for themselves over the years, including a huge rebate on the money contributed to the E.U. Among the larger member states, it is the only one to forego the euro, the currency that 19 E.U. countries share. It has also stayed out of the Schengen Area of 26 European states whose citizens are allowed to cross each other’s borders without so much as showing their passports.
Still, in order to access the common European market, the U.K. had to accept the free movement of goods and workers from other E.U. member states. That has made trade a lot more efficient. According to the Office of National Statistics, 44% of everything the U.K. exports goes to other E.U. member states, all without paying tariffs or going through customs procedures. But in addition to goods, European citizens have been able to move freely across British borders. The U.K. saw a massive influx of workers from poorer countries like Poland and Slovakia after they joined the E.U. in 2004.
Between 1990 and 2015, the U.K.’s population grew by about 8 million people, roughly equal to the population of London–even though the national fertility rate is now below replacement levels. In the fiscal year ending in March, about 270,000 people settled in the U.K. from other E.U. nations. “There is a national limit to how many of them we can take,” says Jeffrey Elenor, a local councilman in the southeastern district of Thanet, where 63% of voters supported leaving the E.U. “We’ve become their favorite honey pot.”
Underlying such concerns is the sense that the U.K. has surrendered too much control to the unelected E.U. technocrats in Brussels. Deservedly or not, the E.U.’s institutions have a reputation for being elitist, inefficient and undemocratic. (The European Parliament, after all, picks up and moves once a month from Brussels to Strasbourg for a few days at great expense, chiefly to keep the French happy.) What the British tabloids especially love to hate about the E.U. is the red tape churned out by Brussels in an attempt to regulate every aspect of the European market, from the maximum wattage of vacuum cleaners to the amount of water used in a toilet flush. As one conservative member of Parliament, Craig Mackinlay, told me on referendum day, “I’m only half an MP, because half the decisions are made in Brussels.”
Maybe not quite half. But the give-and-take between national sovereignty and European integration is at the heart of the E.U.’s debate over the benefits of creating “an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe.” First outlined in the preamble to the 1957 Treaty of Rome–the E.U.’s founding document–this idea envisions the gradual fusion of European states into a federation, or as its most ardent supporters suggest, a United States of Europe. “It is a silly notion,” says Laszlo Trocsanyi, Minister of Justice in Hungary, whose government has long been among the most resistant to Europe’s push for integration. “It creates a false illusion.”
One might more generously call it a dream, and a rather noble one, in which nations would seek to set aside the tribalism that fueled countless European wars in favor of a transnational identity–not merely Dutch or English or Hungarian, but European. For those who grew up in the 1990s, after the Iron Curtain fell and Schengen effectively abolished borders across the E.U., it has been relatively easy to embrace that European identity. Europe for most millennials means unlimited freedom to travel and work in any of the E.U.’s 28 member states, each with its own culture to explore, its own charms and opportunities. “My generation has the most at stake in losing that,” 19-year-old Gus Sharpe said after voting in his hometown of Margate.
But it wasn’t Sharpe’s generation that decided the result. Across the U.K., only about 19% of people between the ages of 18 and 24 supported Brexit, according to a survey conducted by the YouGov polling agency. Among those of retirement age, who grew up before the E.U. was created, a staggering 59% wanted their country to leave. That shows how badly the E.U. has failed in trying to foster a sense of belonging among its older citizens. “Only about 15% of British people will confess to any kind of European identity whatsoever,” says Patrick Dunleavy, a professor of political science at the London School of Economics. Instead, the British tend to see themselves as a nation apart, the proud heirs to an imperial legacy that still colors their attitudes toward the rest of the world. That has made it harder for them to share the European dream of equal nations governing by consensus.
Now they have walked away from that dream, leaving Europe to stop such ballot-box insurgencies from spreading. It won’t be easy. A Pew Research survey taken this spring found that a plurality of voters in France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands want the E.U. to return some of its powers to national governments. “In many other countries in the E.U., people also want to get out,” says France’s Le Pen.
Hungary is planning to hold a referendum this fall to challenge the E.U.’s authority over whether the country can be forced to accept some of the 1 million-plus refugees who arrived in Europe last year. “We cannot give the right to anybody else to decide who can live on the territory of our country,” says Trocsanyi. “We have to be able to decide.” Polls suggest that Hungarian voters will overwhelmingly agree.
It seemed ironically appropriate that President Barack Obama learned the results of the Brexit referendum while visiting Stanford University, the heart of Silicon Valley. As global markets went into free fall the morning after the vote, Obama chose to blame the outcome on anxiety over globalization, the very force that had lifted up Silicon Valley and the digital economy it represents.”Yesterday’s vote speaks to the ongoing changes and challenges that are raised by globalization,” he told a summit of entrepreneurs. “The world has shrunk. It is interconnected.”
To Obama’s audience that morning, a shrinking world has always been a better one. It has meant open markets, global reach and easy access to cheap labor. But globalization means something else for the voters who backed Brexit, a group Matthew Goodwin, a British political scientist at the University of Kent, calls the “left behind.” They’ve been doubly abandoned–first by the postindustrial economy, which made their jobs redundant and moved their industries abroad. And then by the mainstream politicians who took their support for granted while serving the interests of the wealthy.
But the white working class never went away. Across Europe and in the U.S., they have been quietly stewing in their own resentments and feeling variously belittled, patronized and ignored by the elites who champion globalization. “Nobody paid attention to us for I don’t know how long,” John Nichols, a retired fisherman in the southeast of England, told me on referendum day. “It’s like we didn’t exist.”
To Nichols and other supporters of Brexit, the question of leaving the E.U. was not just about taking control of borders, finances and fishing rights from the bureaucrats in Brussels. It was also a chance to vent the social and economic rage that has been building.”It is a response to 50 or 60 years of economic change,” says Tony Travers, a political scientist and adviser to the British Parliament, “from which some people have managed to gain, and others have found it harder, and in some cases a lot harder, to benefit from that new world.”
Their frustrations came with a yearning for an older world, one in which their native industries and local customs could withstand the forces of globalization. It wasn’t long before demagogues appeared with promises to resurrect that world. In the U.K., Brexiteers pledged to “take back control”–glossing over the fact that leaving the E.U. would also mean losing the privileges of Europe’s single market.
In the race for the U.S. presidency, Donald Trump has made similar promises to build walls and ban Muslims to “make American great again.” While Obama held court in Silicon Valley the day after the referendum, Trump arrived in the U.K. to open his refurbished golf course in Scotland. “People are angry all over the world,” the Republican candidate said. “They’re angry over borders. They’re angry over people coming into the country and taking over, and nobody even knows who they are.”
In his diagnosis at least, Trump is right. The anger is palpable across the U.S. and Europe. Even in Germany, a nation that has spent decades trying to immunize itself from the virulent nationalism that spawned the Third Reich, the popularity of the far right has soared in response to last year’s influx of refugees from the war zones of Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
Polls show that Alternative für Deutschland, whose manifesto holds that Islam is incompatible with the German constitution, is now the third most popular party in the country. Le Pen, who called Brexit a “victory for freedom,” has urged all E.U. members to hold a referendum on whether to break away. Russia is watching for how it might gain from the possible disintegration of the E.U. Boris Titov, an adviser to the Kremlin on business affairs, blithely predicted that Brexit would spell the end of the transatlantic alliance. “This is not the independence of Britain from Europe,” he wrote on his Facebook page the day after the referendum, “but the independence of Europe from the USA.”
That seems like wishful thinking for the Russians. Most E.U. nations, if not all of them, still consider the U.S. their most important ally outside their own bloc–at least in military terms. And without the British, there is a chance that European leaders could find it easier to pursue that “ever-closer union.” “We have to set a positive agenda, and positive goals, and try to show that we have an ambition and an aspiration to produce prosperity for our people,” German Chancellor Merkel said at an E.U. summit on June 29.
But their biggest challenge remains unresolved. They will still need to convince the people in each member state to pull together, not out of fear or complacency, but out of a shared conviction that the European dream is still worth dreaming.
–With reporting by Vivienne Walt/Brussels
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