The anticipation of a calamity is never the same as the calamity. For all that was said and written about what would or could happen if Britain voted to quit the European Union, nothing quite matches the shock and confusion that Britain and the world felt on Friday.
Somehow the commentators and politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen had assumed that for all the isle’s insularity, for all the familiar euroskepticism and grousing about immigrants, when the time came Britons would revert to form and remain in their proper place in the front ranks of the Western world.
Something very different has happened. Defying the warnings of every major economic and political institution in Britain, Europe and the United States, millions of voters across Britain concluded that a gamble on a dangerous unknown was better than staying with a present over which they felt they had lost control. It was a cry of anger and frustration from more than half the country against those who wield power, wealth and privilege, both in their own government and in Brussels, and against global forces in a world that they felt was squeezing them out.
The repercussions were immediate. The pound crashed to the lowest level since 1985 and markets tumbled. Prime Minister David Cameron, who foolishly called the referendum largely as a ploy to deal with political problems in his party, announced he will resign. It will now require major feats of leadership by financial and political institutions in Britain and on both sides of the Atlantic to manage a period of profound economic uncertainty. That process will not be made easier by political uncertainty in Britain, by a Europe in turmoil over the refugee crisis and a United States in a tumultuous election year.
Technically, the primary consequence of the vote is that Britain must begin the process of disentangling itself from the E.U.’s common market, following procedures set out in Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. But this has never been done before and is certain to be enormously complicated for Britain and the union.
A large proportion of Britain’s internal regulations are based on E.U. rules and will need to be revised. At the same time, E.U. countries are Britain’s primary trading partners, and there will be innumerable questions about the terms of Britain’s participation in the single European market. Germany and France are not likely to be charitable, if only to dissuade euroskeptics on the Continent from following Britain’s lead. And every step of the negotiations will require agreement from 27 fractious E.U. member states.
The British government will have its own problems of unity, as Scotland and Northern Ireland assess the advantages of staying in the United Kingdom against the disadvantages of losing membership in the European Union.
These immediate problems, moreover, do not begin to reflect the enormity of the fundamental questions now hanging over the presumptions and principles that have long underpinned the way Britain and Europe see their role in the world.
The British vote strikes at a time when Europe’s institutions and unity are being tested to the limit by the Greek debt crisis and the waves of refugees pouring in from the Middle East and North Africa. Even though Britain never acceded to the E.U.’s open borders or single currency, it has been a leader of Western Europe, a bastion of democratic values, economic probity and military reliability. What now happens to European unity in the face of challenges from Russia or the Middle East is one of the many open questions.
And if this Britain has shown itself vulnerable to nationalist, antiglobalization and anti-immigrant sentiments, what of the populist rebellions that have spread through other European states? Will the British precedent embolden other xenophobic movements, weakening the remaining union? And what will be the impact on the credibility of the North Atlantic alliance now that Europe’s leading military power has shown its reluctance to participate in European affairs?
For Americans, a related question is whether the success of the “leave” voters – a group eerily similar to Donald Trump’s followers, motivated by many of the same frustrations and angers – presages a Trump victory.
These are the questions that will demand urgent attention from European and American leaders in coming days and weeks. Still, they are no cause for panic. However frightening Brexit may appear on the morning after, the political, economic and security institutions of the West are solid and flexible, and with time they will adjust to the new reality. But there should be no illusion that it is a very different reality.