Friday morning, we woke to news that the United Kingdom narrowly voted in a referendum to leave the European Union. The results, in which 52 percent voted for the UK’s exit — “Brexit” — and 48 percent voted to remain part of the European market and its political institutions, were a blow to many. Most exit polls suggested a narrow win for the “remain” camp, and both major parties in the UK’s parliament, including the Conservatives under Prime Minister David Cameron as well as the economic elite, supported continued EU membership.
Yet history has suggested that the British, which joined midway in 1973 to benefit from the common market, have never been completely integrated, opting to keep their currency and stay outside of the EU’s borderless Schengen area.
Why did a slight majority vote to leave? There were many reasons, some of which have been polemically exploited in the tabloid press: immigration from EU and non-EU citizens and sovereignty concerns about decisions made by “unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels” topped the list. But there were other reasons as well: the inability to comprehend the admittedly complex institutional functioning of the EU and its tarnished image, resulting from failure to effectively resolve the Euro-crisis, and the security and refugee dilemmas.
But a look at the actual voting pattern makes it clear that the UK itself is quite divided: 66 percent who left school at 16 voted to leave, yet 71 percent with university degrees voted to remain. Other divides were between urban and rural voters, and the young and old: 75 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted to stay, whereas 61 percent of people over 65 voted for Brexit. And in Scotland and Ireland, almost two-thirds of voters wanted to remain, which will further distance those regions from the once united kingdom.
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This is a geopolitical earthquake, and while it is hard to project exactly what will happen, there will be major political and economic repercussions. The economic fallout, while incalculable at this point given that we don’t know how long or how deep the markets will tumble together with the loss of jobs and trade relations, will be substantial but, it is hoped, will subside. After all, neither the UK nor EU member states are interested in economic losses.
The political costs, however, will reverberate longer and could weigh heavily on Europe and the United States. Prime Minister David Cameron resigned and will step down, leaving the UK’s renegotiation with the continent to a new leader. For Britain, this also means that we can expect more referenda in Scotland and in Northern Ireland to leave the UK and possibly join the EU on their own.
The EU itself will have to react quickly to contain the economic and political damage by negotiating a new relationship with the UK, in particular with regards to trade and finance.
But the remaining 27 members may also treat the UK harshly to ward off other looming renegotiation claims by Eurosceptics across the continent, evidenced by calls for further referenda on EU membership by French, Danish, Dutch and Italian far-right politicians.
It inevitably will also give more power to an already dominant Germany. Optimists believe that getting rid of the EU’s “reluctant Europeans” actually will make the Union stronger by creating a more cohesive bloc in terms of security and social policy.
Last, Brexit foreshadows a global rise of populists, an expression of insecurity created by the pressures of globalization, reflected in the quote by an EU analyst that, “We live in Trumpy times.”
It also puts into question transatlantic coordination and joint economic projects, such as the U.S.-EU Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership. While the UK remains a NATO member, the United States has lost an important EU ally and the Europeans a powerful member state. This unilateral divorce will cost all parties involved.
Markus Thiel is associate professor of politics and international relations at Florida International University. He is also director of the European and Eurasian studies program.