BY MICHAEL ZELLER
One-hundred years ago this summer the continent of Europe was in the grip of the bloodiest conflagration in centuries. On days like this, when the people of the United Kingdom—not so united, it seems—voted narrowly but clearly to leave the European Union, one is compelled to think of the massive impact of single events.
This is not the Great War. Despite the veiled allusions or outright assertions of British leaders and public figures that so-called Brexit could eventually lead to war in Europe, very little suggests and a great deal confirms the continued peace of states and people from the Atlantic Ocean to the Dnieper River (of course, a tragic and worrying conflict still smolders just east of the Dnieper.). But when Robert Graves published his youthful autobiography in 1929, having survived the horrors of the First World War, living in the wake of them, he purposely alluded to the stark change brought about by the war. Good-Bye to All That, he titled his book. Just as Sir Edward Grey, British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs at the start of the war, desolately remarked on 3 August 1914, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time,” so too did Graves look at the world before the war. It had changed. Rapidly and in plain sight the old order was destroyed and replaced.
17,410,742 British citizens voted to leave the EU. So comes another climacteric, another turning point when the weight of history—the series of events that led to this moment and the inestimably long chain of implications and consequences that will follow—is immense. Whether in exaltation or pain or some variety of disorientation, the pressure of that weight bears down on us all.
From the townships and villages and suburbs of England—the decisive bulk of votes came from those areas—will radiate out shockwaves from this vote. They have already hit much of the United Kingdom. Apart from the vote in itself, other seismic events have shaken the country. David Cameron will step down as Prime Minister. In a speech in front of No. 10 Downing Street, the embattled PM announced the Conservative Party conference in October as the deadline for his departure. Most predict the ascent of the boisterous, mesmeric, disheveled former Lord Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, though that is by no means certain. Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU (62 per cent), will hold another independence referendum. Rather than being ‘taken out of the EU against its will,’ Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon cited manifesto pledges of the Scottish National Party—‘the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against her will’—and said she will begin making preparations for the next referendum. Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness and several other MPs have called for a vote on unification with the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland, which also voted handily to stay in the EU (56 per cent), shares a land border with the EU and may opt for reunification over establishing border controls with the rest of Ireland. And the Labour Party, after almost uniformly campaigning to remain and seeing their traditional constituents sway the result to leave, has resumed its internal civil war. Blairite MPs and members have tabled a no-confidence vote against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Whether the party can re-form and regain meaningful support among the electorate is very much in doubt.
Yet the consequences of Brexit hardly end at the shores of the English Channel. The European Union now faces an existential crisis. Whereas the recession and Greek debt crises threatened the economic solvency of the Union, this later, arguably resultant development threatens its purpose. What is the purpose of the EU; has it been lost among swelling supranational bureaucracy; what does a country give up in being an EU member? These questions gripped Britain for the last several months. Officials in Brussels and heads of state across Europe are surely desperate to avoid that grasp in their own countries.
The leaders of Europe are confronted with a dizzying array of decisions. Perhaps paramount and most fundamental among these: punitive treatment of Britain in order to discourage similar exits by other members, or a moderate approach aimed at minimizing the economic impact on European industries. That particular answer, regardless of calls by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and others for a speedy process, will likely unfold slowly in the separation negotiations that begin once the British government invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.
Beyond the diminished realm of the EU, Russian government officials and political figures have crowed. President Vladimir Putin offered a broad, dispassionate assessment of the results and likely consequences, predicting eventual stabilization of the markets and a rather unchanged set of circumstances in Europe. Privately, given the Kremlin’s support of far-right Eurosceptic parties across Europe and its interest in undermining the European cohesion that has sustained sanctions against Russia, Putin is likely quite pleased with the outcome.
The next several years will reveal the shape of post-Brexit Europe. EU officials and champions may accelerate the process of integration; introduce a European army and common foreign policy. We may look back on these days and reflect on the true beginning of a United States of Europe. Alternatively, it very well could be that the British example combined with rising nationalism, the influence of far-right political figures, and continuing socio-cultural strife generates a wave of plebiscites across the continent. We may look back on this day and reflect on the beginning of the end for the EU. The number of possibilities, their stark contrast yet equivalent plausibility, is shocking. But we are undeniably living in a ‘post-Brexit world.’ That is, our society, the context that enfolds our very lives will change because of this event. In the same way that so many understood immediately that the events of 11 September 2001 heralded a new world, in the same way that Edward Grey foresaw and that Robert Graves later observed that the Great War swept away the old order, the British exit from the European Union marks the dawn of the different: the world will not be as it was before, beginning today.
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