British voters have delivered a historic rebuff to the EU, putting into reverse 70 years of European integration and confronting the bloc with its biggest existential challenge since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Any divorce will take years to play out, but it is a moment all EU leaders feared: a referendum jolt with the potential to fracture not just the union but reshape the postwar order in the west. Brexit tugs at the bonds holding the bloc together, and the collective standing and clout of its members in the world.
The EU is at bay. Once Britain leaves, the EU loses its biggest military spender, a UN Security Council seat, its second-biggest economy and one of its most vocal champions of world trade and liberal economics. All that comes as the continent is buffeted by the aftermath of multiple economic and political shocks at home and abroad.
“I don’t want to say the sky is falling,” said Nicholas Burns, a former US ambassador to Nato and one-time third-ranking official at the state department, ahead of the vote. “But with the combination of Russia’s aggression in eastern Europe, a refugee crisis, the economic crisis and now a possible Brexit, this is the most critical time for Europe since the end of the cold war.”
Brexiters are convinced the diplomatic alliances that predated Britain’s EU accession in 1973 will endure and thrive once the shackles of the EU are cast off. Yet their confidence was not widely shared beyond Britain’s shores. All traditional allies — without exception — urged the UK against putting so much at risk by leaving.
Barack Obama said Britain’s EU membership gave Washington “much greater confidence about the strength of the transatlantic union”. Using more blunt language Donald Tusk, the European Council president, said: “the day the Brits would leave the EU, our external enemies will open a bottle of champagne”.
Brexit is dangerous, he went on, because the consequences are “completely unpredictable”. “As a historian, I am afraid this could in fact be the start of the process of destruction of not only the EU but also of the western political civilisation,” he said.
The internal challenge — holding the union together
Diplomats see the referendum result unleashing a wave of anxiety that will pull at the seams of the union and reveal whether Europe is willing to come together any longer.
The first challenge will be triage. Friday will see a pan-EU scramble to shore up confidence. While numerous European leaders have warned against responding to a Eurosceptic referendum with a “more Europe” message, they must find a way to stop contagion to the Netherlands, Denmark, eastern Europe or France.
A British exit will require a concerted push to ensure “a decades-long, successful integration effort does not end in disintegration”, said Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, before the vote.
Looming large will be the danger of far-right, anti-EU politicians making further gains, from Geert Wilders in the Netherlands to France’s Marine Le Pen, who wants France to have its own referendum.
A hardline group of EU countries — led by France and Belgium — want to give a firm message that Brexit will be an orderly, quick and inevitably costly for Britain. Germany is more wary and hopes the markets will make clear the consequences of the referendum, both to Britain and to populists on the continent.
On a more positive agenda, Angela Merkel, German chancellor, and François Hollande, the French president, are planning to show there is still energy and purpose within the European project, potentially through signalling deeper co-operation on border control, defence and security.
With French and German elections looming next year, both are reluctant to expose the deep divisions on economic policy with another serious attempt integrate the eurozone. Some senior EU officials believe the market reaction will give them no choice.
External consequences — and the continent’s balance of power
Sigmar Gabriel, the German vice-president, warned that a UK exit would leave the bloc looking to the world like “a continent that cannot really be relied upon”. Both the EU and Britain fear the separation will inevitably hit their soft power, with the outside world seeing them as divided, has-been forces.
Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London and leading Brexiter, said scaremongering had vastly overstated the risk to a western order founded around the Nato defensive alliance. Leaving will bring “a dynamic, liberal, cosmopolitan, open, global, free-trading, prosperous Britain”.
Yet Brexiters admit that will take time. Europe faces years of protracted, punishing and divisive talks on an exit that will sap energy and preoccupy leaders. “How do we explain this to the world?” asked one despairing EU ambassador.
With respect to crucial EU foreign policy decisions, diplomats see the impact being felt on everything from the fragile consensus on sanctions policy against Russia to the bloc’s already waning political appetite to strike trade deals.
Longer term, the question will be whether the regular forum for interaction provided by the EU will be replaced, and whether the British withdrawal will tilt the political outlook of the bloc.
“The reputation and image blow is massive,” said Jan Techau of Carnegie Europe. “The strategic culture within Europe will change and the balance of economic cultures within the EU will change. The transatlantic relationship will probably be weaker too, and the political dynamics will have an effect on Nato as well.”
Much will depend on America and its engagement with the bloc. One US official said they doubted Europe’s “self-inflicted disaster” would see Washington seriously double up its focus and attention on the continent, or indeed Britain, unless it was forced to.
There would be a shift in emphasis, however. “This will accelerate the trend of the Americans working with the Germans and the French,” said one senior British official. “They don’t have much choice.”
Live coverage on Britain’s decision to leave the EU