In the end, the British voted to leave the EU, which the UK joined in 1973. After a long and tense night of counting and with the pendulum swinging back and forth, the Leave vote finally won the June 23 referendum by 51.9 percent. David Cameron announced his resignation as British prime minister. He will leave in October, hoping in the meantime to “steady the ship.”
The result is a very depressing outcome not only for Britain but also for Europe. Europe’s place in the world has been severely weakened, as has Britain’s.
More than that. The EU, which was built on the ashes of World War II, was the great hope, the great conviction, that it would lead the continent to peace and prosperity and solidarity. That it would become an attraction for other countries seeking democracy. That its model was unprecedented. If Brexit hasn’t put paid to those values, it has certainly dangerously challenged them. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a statement on June 24, “there is no point beating about the bush: today is a watershed for Europe.”
The immediate consequences of the British vote are fourfold.
First, Euroskeptic parties throughout Europe will be thrilled by the British result and will exploit it to the full. Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front, who is running for the French presidency, has already said she would hold a referendum on France’s future in the EU if elected in 2017.
She is not alone. In Austria, Denmark, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Poland, Euroskeptic, populist, and anti-immigration parties are on the rise. The British result will embolden them to call for referenda in their countries about their future in the EU. A big Euroskeptic juggernaut is on the move across Europe. It has the potential to paralyze Europe, on the one hand, and deepen the divisions inside the union, on the other. Europe’s credibility has taken a battering.
So far, Europe’s leaders in Germany, France, and other countries have failed to counter this surge of movements that are against everything that the EU stands for. If anything, they have seemed positively powerless in the wake of these trends, which challenge the very existence of the EU.
The second consequence, and closer to home for Britain, is that Scotland, which voted to remain, will almost certainly consider again holding a referendum on its independence. Scots narrowly voted to remain in the UK when they held a referendum in 2014. That has now all changed with the UK vote to quit the EU. If a referendum in Scotland were held, it is hard to see the Scots wanting to remain part of Britain. That would be the beginning of the breakup of the UK—with only the Brexit camp to blame.
Third, Ireland’s security, stability, and economy have been dealt a hard blow by the British vote. Heaven knows what will happen to the free movement of people, goods, and capital between the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the rest of Britain. Not to mention the depressing thought of a border returning between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Above all, Sinn Féin, the Irish nationalist party and political wing of the Irish Republican Army, said it would call for a referendum to unite the island of Ireland. Just imagine how the Unionists in Northern Ireland, who want the province to remain part of the UK, would react.
Fourth are the roles of Germany and France. Merkel has rarely spoken about how she sees the future direction of the EU—not that the French president, François Hollande, has ever said much about it either.
Well, now is the time to break that silence. The first thing Berlin and Paris should do is say publicly how they are going to defend the euro. In fact, all the eurozone countries have to rally round to save the currency from the markets. During the euro crisis, Merkel said the euro would be defended at any cost. It’s going to need the maximum defense in the coming days and weeks. And it’s going to require the eurozone countries to make the leap toward a fiscal union. Inaction is no longer an option for Berlin and Paris.
Of course, with Germany and the Netherlands facing parliamentary elections and France presidential elections in 2017, the temptation to put off difficult decisions will be great. That would be a big mistake. Publics across the EU need to know how EU leaders are going to deal with Brexit, how they are going to deal with the yawning gap between the member states and the institutions in Brussels, and how they are going to cope with the immense challenges facing the bloc.
Guy Verhofstadt, a former prime minister of Belgium and now leader of the Liberal group in the European Parliament, proposed calling a convention designed to write a constitution for the EU. That was tried back in the early 2000s but was sabotaged by Britain. Another chance, this time without Britain?
Many will say that this is not the right time for a convention, that it would simply play into the hands of Euroskeptics. Others will counter that by arguing that the EU has to define itself. And some will state the obvious: Europe needs growth and jobs, especially for the younger generation. Whatever the view, hard decisions have to be made. Brexit was about Europe’s survival. It is now time for EU leaders to save it.