The image of Britain as an open, diverse, and modern nation now lies in tatters as voters decided to leave the European Union last night and plunge the nation into the unknown.
With (as of writing this) an almost 1 million vote lead, Britons who wanted out of the EU voiced their displeasure with Brussels and their own government in Westminster by rejecting the political and economic union they have been a part of for over 40 years.
It is a seismic shift in not only European politics, but global power dynamics too. The economic shock will roil through global markets creating a potential world wide recession, and the pound could take years to recover from its overnight collapse. The united European dream has been dealt the most severest of blows, and what was once a symbol of unity between nations that had murdered each other's citizens for hundreds of years is now in real danger of dissolving if nationalist movements in other countries follow suit.
Britain's exit from the EU was inspired by its latent nationalist instincts that have re-emerged in the wake of deep economic malaise. Neoliberalism has been particularly unkind to Britain's working population, and right wing movements like the UK independence party and Britain First have capitalized on their discontent by whipping up fear over immigrants and dastardly European bureaucrats. It is a playbook that has been utilized throughout history, and it worked perfectly.
It should be remembered that the EU is not perfect, and there are systemic problems that have serious consequences for citizens in member states. Amongst other sins, the EU has imposed deeply destructive trade agreements that favor giant conglomerates, and most worryingly is increasingly gutting environmental regulation. As environmentalist George Monbiot writes:
The organisation that began as an industrial cartel still works at the behest of the forces best equipped to operate across borders: transnational corporations. The commission remains a lobbyists’ paradise: opaque, sometimes corruptible, almost unnavigable by those without vast resources.
Of course nationalists and far right figures urging an exit from the Euro were not concerned about these issues though -- they instead focused on immigrants stealing British jobs. Because for all the EU's shortfalls, the benefit of membership for the UK and the rest of the world has been significant: access to the single market, increased investment, and trade deals with other powers outside the EU are incredibly beneficial -- so much so that virtually every leader on the planet urged them to stay in it.
A Britain outside the EU means grave instability and economic turmoil -- a fact reflected almost instantaneously by careening global markets in the wake of the vote. But there is a more important aspect to the 'Brexit' that cannot necessarily be quantified by economics, and it is one of European solidarity.
The fracturing of the EU represents a return to a darker past that remains the most violent, murderous period of time in human history. The rise of right wing movements throughout Europe led to two World Wars that eliminated millions and millions of lives in the space of less than twenty years. A political and economic union was not only monetarily beneficial to nation states that had been at loggerheads for decades (if not centuries), it was essential in stopping them killing each other. As Paul Krugman notes:
The so-called European project began more than 60 years ago, and for many years it was a tremendous force for good. It didn’t only promote trade and help economic growth; it was also a bulwark of peace and democracy in a continent with a terrible history.
Britain has been a proud member of this union for decades, and its exit on nationalistic grounds could well trigger similar movements throughout Europe. And we all know what happens when extreme right wing political parties get into power.
The Brexit does not, as its advocates insist, mark 'independence' for the country -- it marks Britain's submission to its worst, most basic instincts of isolationism and xenophobia. It voted not for sound economic or political reason, but for fear of other.
One would hope that as time goes on, the world would move towards greater integration and greater cooperation between human beings. To a large degree, it has, but Britain has defied this growing spirit of unity and decided to turn its back on human progress. The world is less unified today than it was yesterday, and it will take a concerted effort to undo the damage done by the Brexiters who decided to vote on what divides us rather than what keeps us together.
The rest of Europe must not take heed from Britain's selfishness, but rather learn from it and create a better, more just union to counter the rising forces that seek to break it apart.