A watershed moment for Europe

Voices are already being heard in other countries calling for copycat exit referendums.

June 25, 2016 23:46
2 minute read.
brexit UK

A ‘BREXIT’ SUPPORTER holds a Union Jack at a Vote Leave rally in London earlier this month.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The United Kingdom has been thrown into political and economic turmoil by Thursday’s Brexit vote to leave the European Union.

Britain now stands as a house divided: Scotland may well seek a second referendum and is already seeking talks with the EU to remain in the bloc; the peace process in Northern Ireland is endangered by the ripple effects of the vote; Prime Minister David Cameron has announced his resignation; the sterling has collapsed and the UK’s credit outlook has been downgraded amid expectations for prolonged uncertainty.

Britain, though, as Cameron said in his post-vote speech, can survive outside the European Union. It is indeed a great trading nation, whose science and arts, engineering and creativity are respected the world over.

But the question is: Can Europe survive now that Britain has voted to leave? As German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, the Brexit vote is “a watershed for Europe and the European unity process.”

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls – never afraid to speak his mind – was more outspoken: “At stake is the break-up pure and simple of the union.” He added: “Now is the time to invent another Europe.”

Valls said the Brexit vote had “revealed a malaise within Europe that had been ignored for too long.”

That malaise over slagging economic growth, austerity measures and immigration, has given rise to euroskepticism, populism and nationalism.

The future of the European Union hangs in the balance, as historian Timothy Garton Ash told the BBC prior to the vote.

It is not, as Ash said, going to collapse tomorrow, but to retain its unity, the European Union must deliver answers to the problems of economic growth inside the eurozone; to managing the flow of refugees and migrants; and to addressing the fears of populations which lead them to vote for euroskeptic and nationalist parties.

Voices are already being heard in other countries calling for copycat exit referendums.

“Victory for freedom!” France’s far-right National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, tweeted after the vote. “As I have been asking for years, now we need to have the same referendum in France and in the countries of the EU.”

In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, head of the right-wing PVV party, tweeted: “Hurrah for the Brits! Now it’s our turn. Time for a Dutch referendum!” “We want to be in charge of our own country, our own money, our own borders, and our own immigration policy. As quickly as possible the Dutch need to get the opportunity to have their say about Dutch membership of the European Union,” Wilders said.

The breakup of a European Union built on the ashes of a post-war continent could have consequences far more disastrous than economic turmoil.

“No informed person could seriously wish to return to the embattled, mutually antagonistic circle of suspicious and introverted nations that was the European continent in the quite recent past,” wrote the late British historian Tony Judt in his 1996 book, A Grand Illusion?: An Essay on Europe.

The Bosnian War after the collapse of the former Yugoslavia gave a glimpse of what can happen on European soil when those forces are unleashed.

Russia, after biting into Ukraine, is meanwhile watching triumphantly on the sidelines after the Brexit vote.

“Tonight is giant victory for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s foreign policy objectives,” wrote Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Moscow.

As Merkel noted following the UK vote, the peace that European unity has brought “is anything but self-evident.”

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