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 being thrown around. And in that spirit, Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch, anti-immigrant Party for Freedom, mentioned a “Nexit.” Other far-right parties across Europe are echoing these calls. This disunion comes at a time when Europe is still struggling to recover from the eurozone crisis and resolve difficulties over the migrants pouring in from Syria.

To counter this, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has demanded that the United Kingdom begin the exiting process immediately, perhaps intending to set an example of what will happen to any other country that decides to leave. The rules allow the United Kingdom two years of negotiation, but if no deal is agreed upon, it will have to return to its pre-1973 status. That was the year the United Kingdom joined what was then the European Economic Community, which was not much more than a single marketplace. Already, François Villeroy de Galhau, governor of the Bank of France and a member of the European Central Bank’s Governing Council, has threatened to take back the United Kingdom’s passporting rights, which allow international financial services to access the EU market while operating in the United Kingdom. But Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the Vote Leave campaign, scoffed at the idea, countering that any leave agreement would involve keeping those rights. He pointed to Norway, which has no voting rights in the EU but still has access to the single market and the privilege of passporting.

The EU is now sailing through uncharted waters, so it is unclear how exactly the negotiations to leave will unfold. There are even questions about whether the exit will happen, either wholly or in part. The referendum was advisory, and so the formal exit cannot happen without legislation from the British Parliament. Also, a petition to hold a second referendum has attracted more than one million signatures. There is further speculation that Scotland may not leave after all, and it is clear that many British voters are experiencing buyer’s remorse; many have said they intended only to send a signal of protest, not to actually leave the bloc. The United Kingdom is clearly about to enter a messy and uncertain period. What impact this will have on the enthusiasm for exit movements in other EU countries will depend on the outcome of the next few months or even years.

To be sure, the EU was not perfect in the way it was structured or in the policies it pursued. Indeed, part of the motivation behind the British referendum was to allow voters to offer input on how to reform the United Kingdom’s relationship with the EU. But the outcome has gone much further than Cameron or even many British Euroskeptics had wanted. Seen in this way, Brexit is a rude wake-up call to the governments of the other 27 member states and to the leaders of the major EU institutions. There are two potential silver linings to this dark cloud. First, it is possible, if difficult to imagine amid the current turmoil, that the EU could heed the call for reform and emerge from the Brexit debacle leaner, more efficient, and more closely attuned to what the European people want. Second, it could turn out that the costs of the referendum and of Brexit are so great for the United Kingdom—in political, economic, and social terms—that they will be enough to make other EU member states think twice about holding their own votes. The United Kingdom is a pioneer in this regard, and its experience may end up as a salutary warning for others.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now