The British vote to leave the European Union (EU) is the first step toward formal disintegration that the West has experienced. The closest parallel is France’s decision to step outside the integrated military command structure of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1966. But France remained a member of NATO; that decision was more like Britain’s opt-out from the single currency or Schengen, even if the shift of NATO’s headquarters from Paris to Brussels made it seem more dramatic. By contrast, the British have now decided that they do not want to take part in the EU and that they want to renegotiate their relationships with the rest of the world on a case-by-case basis. The West has not gone through anything like this since the end of the Second World War.
This move toward disintegration is going to have a powerful impact on the West as a community and as a concept. Certainly it will have an impact on connections across the Atlantic. NATO will still exist, of course, and so will the special relationship shared between Britain and the United States. But what remains of the EU will have a larger population and greater resources than the UK and so it will also loom larger in US foreign policy. That will change if other countries choose to follow Britain’s example. It is not clear that will happen, but it is possible. As the EU diminishes, US disenchantment with Europe will only increase. Eventually, the West will cease to exist beyond formal security guarantees. That is a bad scenario for both sides of the Atlantic.
Disintegration will have a powerful impact on globalization as well. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) was supposed to be the platform for projecting western norms and values for manufacturing and commerce across the globe. That agenda was already running into trouble before the British referendum. Now it is unlikely to recover. That is an important opportunity that will be missed. Instead we are likely to see a Balkanization of the rules that govern the global economy. Britain may win back some cherished privileges in such an environment, but what is more likely is that many of those rules will be created in emerging market economies where the people have different objectives and priorities.
Identity and solidarity will also be affected. This was a very emotional referendum, steeped in identity politics. That was always expected. The result will have emotional resonance across Europe and it will change European perceptions of the UK. That should be expected as well. Hopefully it will not result in some intemperate reaction. It is hard, however, to see how the UK can avoid becoming an ‘other’ for the rest of Europe. The British have always been different in an idiosyncratic and quirky way, but so have the French, the Germans, the Italians and all the rest. Formally withdrawing from Europe is a different matter. Britain will not long be just different, it will also be ‘not one of us’ for many other Europeans. Britons may be proud of that new-found distinction but it is a sad day for the West.
This article was originally published at the Oxford University website.