On June 24, the world awoke to find itself facing the inconceivable: the United Kingdom had voted—52 to 48 percent—to leave the European Union, defying predictions and what some considered all rationality.
It may be difficult to recall that only four years ago the EU had received the Nobel Prize for, as the committee put it, contributing six decades “of peace and reconciliation, democracy, and human rights in Europe.” And yet one single but mighty vote has potentially set in motion the unraveling of the European project.
The immediate fallout included the resignation of the man who called for the referendum, Prime Minister David Cameron, as well as turmoil in international markets, disbelief among other EU and world leaders, and disquiet in Washington. Domestically, the divisions that led to Brexit have only worsened. Cameron decided to hold the referendum in large part to quell infighting within the Conservative Party and to stem growing support for the nationalist United Kingdom Independence Party. Instead, the in-out campaign unleashed ugly emotions and even violence, culminating in the murder of pro-EU Member of Parliament Jo Cox by a man with possible right-wing links.
These sentiments pitted “leavers” against “remainers,” old versus young; widened the cleavages in the major political parties; and fueled clashes among members of communities and even families. It has also embittered Scotland, Northern Ireland, and London, which all clearly favored “remain.” Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon decried the outcome as “democratically unacceptable” and has now promised another vote for Scottish independence. Unlike the referendum in 2014, this one may very well lead to secession now that the region’s EU membership is at stake.
The rest of Europe remains just as divided. The concern for Brussels is that other countries similarly torn over EU membership will be emboldened to hold their own national referendums. Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s right-wing National Front party, called Brexit a “victory” and tweeted that France needs a similar vote—the term “Frexit” is already
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