“The EU is dying. I hope we’ve knocked the first brick out of the wall,” Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, exulted. He proposed that June 23, when the British narrowly voted (51.8 percent of the votes) to leave the European Union, should be a new national holiday called “Independence Day.”
But author J.K. Rowling, who wanted Scotland to remain in the United Kingdom and the U.K. to remain in the EU, tweeted sadly: “Scotland will seek independence now. Cameron’s legacy will be breaking up two unions. Neither needed to happen.”
Soon-to-be-former Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership has assured the dismantling of the U.K. Fifty-eight percent of the English voted “Leave,” while 62 percent of Scots voted “Remain.” It is “democratically unacceptable” for Scotland to be dragged out of the EU by the English, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said, and a second independence referendum in Scotland is “highly likely.”
It remains to be seen whether Cameron’s historic blunder will also trigger the disintegration of the EU itself, but there are plenty of right-wing nationalists in other EU countries who hope there will be a domino effect.
Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s Front National, called the U.K. referendum “a key moment in European history” and said “I hope the French also have a similar exercise.” And “Frexit”is just the start.
Geert Wilders, whose anti-Muslim, anti-immigration Freedom Party is predicted to win 46 of the 150 seats in the Dutch parliament in next year’s election, promised that if he were elected, the Netherlands will hold a “Nexit” referendum. Italy’s anti-immigrant Northern League and the populist 5-Star Movement both called for a referendum on Italian membership of the EU.
Kristian Thulesen Dahls, the leader of the Danish People’s Party, said that Denmark should follow Britain’s lead. Nationalist leaders in Eastern Europe like Poland’s Jarosław Kaczynski and Hungary’s Viktor Orban indulge in harsh anti-EU rhetoric all the time. And so on.
But most of the people who might vote for these nationalist leaders are not seeking the destruction of the EU, just big changes in the way it works — in particular the reform or abolition of the euro and much stricter controls on immigration. Unlike the “Little Englanders” who voted for Brexit, they see the EU as an essential bulwark against a return to the old Europe of beggar-my-neighbor trade policies and savage wars.
The EU’s leaders will have to take a very tough line in the negotiations about the EU’s post-Brexit relations with the rump of the U.K. A horrible example will be required to show the nationalists and populists in other members that leaving is hard and painful. And to preserve the EU they will have to abolish or drastically restructure the euro currency (but that had become necessary anyway).
The odds, however, are that the EU will survive. Its biggest problem will not be the loss of Britain, its second-biggest economy, but rather the fact that post-Brexit Germany will dominate the union even more than it does already.
As for the English, they have made their bed and they will have to lie in it. The pound sterling has already lost much value and will probably lose much more. The last of the three major global ratings agencies, Standard and Poor’s, will downgrade the U.K.’s AAA credit rating. Foreign investment will dry up, in recognition of the fact that the country will probably lose duty-free access to the EU’s “single market.”
Further down the road more pain will follow, as jobs disappear abroad, the English economy goes into recession, and the city of London starts to lose its status as a global financial center rivaled only by New York. That will make domestic politics nasty enough, but the anti-immigrant fervor and outright racism that disfigured the “Leave” campaign are unlikely to dwindle in the ugly aftermath.
The triumph of Brexit is a most regrettable outcome for everybody involved and possibly even for the world economy. But perhaps it isn’t really all that shocking: Charles De Gaulle vetoed British entry to the Common Market, the EU’s ancestor, for five years on the grounds that it didn’t really have a “European vocation.” Turns out he was right.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.