Europe Is Dead Long Live Europe?
The people of the UK have voted to leave the European Union. Both Britain and the rest of Europe now face years of uncertainty. The tough negotiations ahead pose serious questions about the EU's future. By SPIEGEL Staff
Three weeks prior to the big bang, Michael Gove was standing on a rooftop terrace in London's East End talking about how much he likes Europe. German music, Italian food, French joie de vivre -- oh how much he loves this wonderful continent. Gove is a close friend of British Prime Minister David Cameron and the UK secretary of state for justice. He is also a leading proponent of the British campaign to leave the European Union, commonly called Brexit. "I got married in France and my in-laws live in Italy," he said. "Last year, we went to Bayreuth on vacation. Beautiful." He just couldn't stop gushing.
There is, though, one thing that he doesn't like about Europe -- the damned European Union. Gove describes the 28-country bloc as a "job-destroying, misery-inducing, unemployment-creating tragedy." He's been fighting for Britain to leave the EU for years and is convinced he's right. He is an ideologue. His strategic skill is one big reason why the anti-EU camp attracted more and more people in the weeks leading up to the vote.
In a room next door, Brexit activists are waiting with signs and "Vote Leave" T-shirts. It is Gove's job to motivate them for the campaign's final stretch. He straightens his tie and says that he spent a week sitting on a wooden bench listening to Wagner's operas at the Bayreuth Festival. It was complete dedication, he says, offering it as yet more proof of his love for the continent -- and then an advisor tells him it is time to take the stage.
Gove and his followers were ecstatic on Friday morning. They had achieved their goal. According to the final results, 52 percent of the British voted in favor of leaving the EU. It is an outcome that many in Europe didn't initially take seriously. Soon, however, they began to fear it and ultimately, they could do nothing to prevent it.
The Direst Worst-Case Scenario
At shortly after 4 a.m. London time, Nigel Farage, head of the euroskeptic UKIP party, was one of the first to step in front of the cameras. He said the Brexit vote was a "victory for real people, a victory for ordinary people, a victory for decent people." He also demanded Cameron's immediate resignation. At the time of his speech, only 237 of 382 local authorities had declared their results. Just a few minutes later, the pound plunged to its lowest level against the dollar since 1985.
Scotland, London and Northern Ireland all voted clearly in favor of remaining in the EU, but that wasn't enough. The results in the rest of the UK were clear, and the Brexit campaign's lead grew throughout the night. At 5:40 a.m., the BBC made its call: Brexit was reality.
The influential Labour parliamentarian Keith Vaz called the result "a catastrophe;" European Parliament President Martin Schulz said a short time later that it was "a real crisis;" BBC journalists, clearly stunned by the result, said they had never thought they would have to comment on such an outcome. The United Kingdom will become the first European country ever to leave the union.
June 23, 2016 will go down in European history as Black Thursday, a day when a country succumbed to nostalgia and a yearning for freedom instead of following reason. Against the recommendation of a majority of its parliamentarians, against the advice of economists, politicians, academics, friends and allies around the world. It is a decision marked by national egocentrism, stoked by fear and world weariness, but it is nonetheless a democratic decision.
For Europe, it is the most dire, worst-case scenario to have emerged in its recent history. It is a political disaster that reaches far beyond Europe's borders -- and it is also a self-made disaster. It is no longer helpful to wish that the referendum had never taken place nor is it productive to curse David Cameron. The bitter truth of this Thursday is that the European Union, as currently constituted, was unable to inspire the British people. That is the most important lesson.
For Europe, the priority must now be focused on damage control and minimizing losses during the separation phase. Britain is facing a period of economic and political turbulence, made more challenging by Prime Minister David Cameron's Friday announcement that he intends to resign, saying that a new British leader will be in place by the Conservative Party conference in October. For both sides, for the British and for the rest of the Europe, the separation will be difficult and painful.
June 23 is also the day on which the ideal of an integrated continent and an ever-closer union shriveled. Nobody knows for sure what will happen now. The only certainty is that the promises made by the Brexiteers of reduced immigration, of trade deals with India and China, of a new life in freedom, security and prosperity will not come to fruition. At least not in the next five to 10 years.
A New Ice Age
With Britain's departure, the EU is losing a member state with the bloc's second-largest economy and third-largest population. It is a country that has exerted a tremendous influence on Europe politically, culturally and economically in addition to broadening the continent's horizons. The British helped free Europe from Hitler, they advanced the common market and orchestrated EU expansion. Now, however, the relationship between Britain and Europe faces a new ice age.
Internally, the EU will likely be debilitated for years by the British decision. Heads of state and government, cabinet members and diplomats will have to invest much time and energy in negotiating the details of Britain's withdrawal and forging a new model of cooperation. Brexit also sends a message that Europe is crumbling and is no longer able to remain united in periods of great tumult -- not even when neighboring autocrats like Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Recep Erdogan are playing their cynical games.
The European Union has its roots in the postwar period, a time when antagonistic nations were searching for a way to avoid bloody conflict through economic cooperation. From the very beginning, Britain was a supporter of the alliance, even if it initially kept the continent at arm's length. It was only in 1973 that Britain joined the European Economic Union and two years later, its citizens voted in a referendum to stay.
Britain's exit now sweeps away decades of togetherness. Grueling years lie ahead for the European Union. The exit negotiations will only officially begin once the UK informs the European Council of its intention to leave the EU in accordance with Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon. It could be months before that happens. Once it does, the UK and the EU have two years to complete their divorce, unless the deadline is extended by unanimous vote. Two years in which the British government must disentangle British and EU law. Two years to clear up the major and minor questions associated with Brexit and to pass the withdrawal agreement. The blueprint for future EU-British cooperation must be drafted at the same time.
Putting All of Europe at Risk
How will trade relations develop? What will happen with the some three million EU citizens who live in Britain? What about the two million British who live in continental Europe? How will their work and residency permits be handled? Constitutional experts believe that the negotiations could last up to 10 years.
For Prime Minister David Cameron, Brexit is a political and personal catastrophe. Like no other British politician, he tied his fate to the results of the referendum. He wanted to finally resolve the euroskeptic tensions within his party and unwittingly became a key agent of his nation's withdrawal. He will now go down in history as the British prime minister who led his country out of Europe, risking prosperity, jobs and security. Not just in Britain, but across all of Europe.
In his announcement on Friday, he left open when exactly he might step down. It would be best for Britain were he to remain at the helm for at least the next several weeks to deal with the coming chaos and uncertainty. But he made clear on Friday that he does not intend to lead the exit negotiations with the EU. "I do not think it would be right for me to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination," he said.
He could very well be succeeded by Boris Johnson. The former mayor of London, along with Michael Gove, was a key political figure in the drive to leave the EU. Johnson is considered a clever, merciless and ambitious politician, but he is also unpredictable. Some people love him, but it is difficult to imagine him leading the British negotiating team in Brussels.
The UK Is Leaving!
The United Kingdom is leaving! You have to write it again just to believe it. Brexit is no longer merely the subject of pub talk. It is reality. The nightmare has come true and Europe is bewildered about what happened.
The idea of leaving the EU has been fermenting among British Conservatives since the early 1990s. Initially, it was merely a dark fantasy harbored by a few Tory back-benchers seeking to make life difficult for their prime minister, John Major. At the time, they wanted to prevent Britain from ratifying the Maastricht Treaty, which codified the euro as the European Union currency. In the end, the rebels were defeated, but they had planted the seeds of rebellion.