Following France’s 1954 humiliation at the hands of the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower divined the phrase “domino effect” to suggest that the victory of communist guerrillas would lead to a cascade of parallel events elsewhere: “You have a row of dominos set up,” Eisenhower said. “You knock over the first one. … What will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly.” Ike’s idea caught on; the “domino” concept was applied to everything from the Cuban Revolution to the Prague Spring.
Most recently, the prospect of a domino effect was a staple of discussions of the British referendum on EU membership. In this case, a first-mover (the United Kingdom) would trigger the implosion of the EU by daring to exit first. It would be swiftly followed by others eager to free themselves from the shackles of transnational regulators and their world-leading single market.
Domino distress served both sides. As the Leave campaign heated up in October 2015, British entrepreneur Jim Mellon warned that “the EU is heading for a cataclysmic implosion and Britain must get out to avoid (the) grim repercussions.” It implied a chaotic unravelling. The following February, Daily Mail columnist Dominic Sanbrook gave it a historical spin: “If [EU leaders] fail to learn the lessons of the past, then one day, I fear, the EU will go the way of the Soviet Union—a discredited vision of utopian internationalism, unceremoniously dumped in the dustbin of history.”
In the other camp, in April, European Parliament President (and now German chancellor candidate) Martin Schulz warned that Brexit could trigger “an EU implosion.” This view of impending doom also crossed the Atlantic, where the conservative National Interest (and the CATO institute) published an article titled, “The EU will likely implode,” featuring a straightforward prediction: “Once Britain’s exit becomes near-certain, others will rush for the way out.”
In fact, domino worries go back further than then-Prime Minister David “in / out” referendum. Indeed, they may have contributed to it. The constant search for an implosion trigger dates to the darkest days of the continental debt crisis, when the monetary union was thought to be on the verge of collapse. Greece’s exit from the Eurozone was discussed in excruciating detail, not merely in Athens but also within the German Finance Ministry. There were conspiratorial stories about the secret printing of an old-new currency, the drachma, which only worsened the crisis. Hence the “Grexit” moniker that spawned “Brexit” and now “Frexit.”
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