Brexit’s lessons for Europe
It was the anti-establishment vote, that much we knew going in.

Much like what we see in America, with rogue candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, the trend of the little man against the machine is prevalent throughout the Western world. For Britain and the Brexit supporters, this meant fighting a political hegemony in both Labour and Tory that worked in shameless self-interest at the expense of a middle and working class that had lost faith in the European project.

For a long time, all the polls showed a lead for the Remain campaign, something that was assumed to be cemented by the tragic murder of Labour member of parliament and Remain supporter Jo Cox. But the last two weeks showed a sudden turnaround, promising nail-biting suspense. As the result was called early on June 24, there was little of the expected autopsy and self-analysis within the Remain camp, instead they lashed out and soon turned on the very democratic system they had relied on to get their way. The narrative was that it was the uneducated and poor that had chosen to leave the European Union; out of fear, xenophobia and hatred, but naturally the truth is slightly more complicated.

The reason the Remain campaign was ultimately so unsuccessful is that their main method was that of scare-mongering and intimidation, painting a picture of a looming catastrophe, should Britain leave the EU, and were unable to paint a positive picture of the value of a sustained membership. The Brexit campaign won only partially on its own merits, but was helped along by the immigration crisis and its ramifications, having catapulted all of Western Europe into full-blown crisis over the course of the past year. The economic and cultural consequences of this dramatic development were the key players in this election, and despite the media’s best efforts to reduce this to a fear and prejudice-driven vote, it is was actually a referendum on something much more significant — mainly the identity of the British and the longing to once again be a fully independent nation, rather than just another part of a collectivist pact.

Without national and regional identity you do not have a culture, and that was what the voters rebelled against on June 23rd. The British, albeit by a small margin, rejected the idea of a homogenous and easily controllable border-less land, and asked to go back to a Europe with individual nation-states with individual character and self-determination.

The path forward depends on Britain’s ability to calm not only the markets, but also the other 49 percent of its population and making the transition from post-ballot shock to having a unison voice as they enter the inevitable negotiations with Brussels. The remaining 27 EU member states are surely watching Britain now, quite closely, and a successful withdrawal will no doubt shake the union and put its very existence into question. As for the those negotiations, it seems as if the EU is determined to play hardball, openly stating that it wants a swift exit by Britain, giving it two years to negotiate the withdrawal and set the framework for any future relationship to the union, and that this future may include high tariffs for trade with its former partner.

Ironically enough, that brutish method will tend to prove the Leave voters’ very point of a David vs. Goliath-like battle between the establishment and the common man, and may inspire others to follow suit. What Britain showed the rest of us is that the European Union is not inevitable, nor a lifetime contract, but that individual countries can still assert themselves and claim sovereignty. Brexit has shaken the power balance and Brussels is now holding the burden of proof, having to show itself not only useful but necessary to its members. Otherwise, it will risk a full-out mutiny where Britain’s referendum proves to be not the end of an era, but rather the beginning of an undignified end.


This article was first published in Washington Examiner


Annika Hernroth-Rothstein

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