Britons have sent the global market into a free fall, prompted the resignation of their prime minister, and provoked political uncertainty across continental Europe with their choice to cast aside the European Union.
The final results of the long-awaited referendum Thursday on Britain’s EU membership – showing 51.9 percent backing the Leave camp compared with 48.1 percent for Remain – now puts the country, and the EU, in uncharted and potentially dangerous waters.
The choice could mean the loss of access for Britons to the world’s largest market and will require painstakingly hammering out new deals with trading partners. For Europe, it’s the first time a major country has chosen to leave a bloc forged in response to the devastation of World War II, taking with it one-sixth of the EU’s total economy as well as significant foreign policy and military know-how.
But if the vote, which saw 72 percent turnout, seems risky and irrational to those who support the EU, it was also a deeply felt protest: a sign of profound discontent with the forces of globalization that have created clear winners and losers.
Voters here had been duly warned about the potential economic and political fallout of a Brexit. But they brushed those concerns aside in hopes of gaining more control of their borders and laws, and reining in immigration. At the end of the day, whether Brits are angry or rejoicing, the result is a major wake-up call on both sides of the English Channel – and the Atlantic – in a period of great political disruption and even fear.
“People are waking up to realize that, look, this is potentially a misguided protest vote, but it is a protest vote, and politics is not working for a lot of people,” says Brian Klaas, a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics. He says the results will demand greater responsiveness from politicians, so that frustrations do not drive greater nationalism and isolation.
“In order to break that cycle you need to have statesmen and stateswomen who are willing to show that the rest of the world’s problems don’t necessarily need to be addressed by turning inward,” he says. “No matter what walls you build or how many borders you create, [the problems] are here to stay. There is a global society now.”
In London, which voted overwhelmingly for Remain, residents were stunned Friday morning. “People have not realized what has happened,” says Eddie Levy, who was walking his dog in the wealthy neighborhood of Primrose Hill, a bastion of the Remain camp. Residents were gathering to share disbelief over the news. “It’s a very dangerous day.”
“Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid,” says Frank Lipman, as the two friends cross paths. “It was a mistake. We are part of Europe. Even if Brussels needs a kick … this is the wrong way to make a protest vote,” he says. “Companies want to be here because this is Europe, not because we are some … rock in the middle of the Atlantic,” he says.
But if the residents of Primrose Hill have thrived on the globalization of trade and industry that has turned their city into one of the world’s most buzzing international hubs, many others have not, with the support for Leave underscoring the cleavage in British society. The Leave camp made major inroads among the working class, especially in the de-industrialized regions in the north, and pulled in many older voters critical of what they saw as the heavy hand of Brussels and worried about immigration.
Dale Smith, a painter putting up a ladder outside one of the high-end jobs on the main street of Primrose Hill, says he thinks the country has “done right.”
“Bit by bit, it’s just the things you think you can normally do, like buy a house or get your kids in school, you [find you] can’t do it,” he says. He is not scared by the political or economic cost that Westminster and Brussels are bracing for. “It can’t be worse. Until now it’s only been going one way.”
In other words, Mr. Smith seems to be saying, what does he have to lose?
The immediate shocks are still not known. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke for many when she said, "There is no point beating about the bush: today is a watershed for Europe, it is a watershed for the European unification process."
The pound dropped precipitously in value against the dollar and euro – hitting a 31-year low – due to diminished confidence in the British economy.
British Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation Friday morning, but says he’ll stay on through October. That is when he would be expected to invoke Article 50, which lays out the process for a departing member. That implies a two-year negotiation over agreements on everything from the right for Britons to work in other European countries and vice versa to roaming charges on mobile phones, trade tariffs, and rules over data sharing. While negotiations proceed, Britain will remain an EU member.
Jan Techau, the director of Carnegie Europe in Brussels, says that of all the crises the EU has faced since the onset of the global financial crisis in 2009, this is the biggest blow of all. “In terms of the psychological effects, the symbolic value, it can hardly be overestimated,” he says. The vote thrusts the EU into yet another period of “crisis management,” he says, where it will have to balance the need to punish Britain – to deter other referendums in places like France or the Netherlands – without doing further economic damage.
The Leave success has already buoyed the UK's far right. “The dawn is breaking on an independent United Kingdom," UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage said Friday morning. “Let June 23 go down in our history as our independence day."
On the continent, far-right nationalists from Geert Wilders in the Netherlands to leaders of the National Front in France, have hailed the turning point of Brexit amid growing Euroskepticism in their own countries. And presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump, arriving on a scheduled visit to Scotland, congratulated Brits for taking back their country.
But for British society, this was much more than a response from the far-right, says Robert Colls, professor of cultural history at De Montfort University in Leicester, who was calling for a “Lexit,” or a socialist response to Brexit, ahead of the vote. He says the choice to leave is a “late response to globalization” that has dislocated too many people and not been addressed by the Labour party, the majority of whose members backed the Remain camp.
The referendum itself, and the way it played out amid fear and falsifications, is also indicative of a broken system. “We haven’t got a really good system for dealing with complicated matters,” he says. “It has not been necessary for either side to say what will happen next. No one has had to spell it out. We just have to frighten each other.”
For that reason he says he, like the majority who voted for Brexit, have no idea what to expect now. But they believe that they’ve actually made the more prudent choice with an EU they say simply does not work.
“I don’t want a fire next door to my house,” he says. “Even more, I don’t want to be in the house where there is a fire.”