It happened after all. A deeply divided United Kingdom is leaving the European Union. As Rafael Behr in The Guardian so poignantly writes, “There is a difference between measuring the height of a drop and the sensation of falling; between the sight of a wave and hearing it crash on the shore; between the knowledge of what fire can do and feeling the heat as the flames catch.” The choice for Brexit is one thing. But living through the far reaching consequence will be something else entirely.
The consequences have already begun. The UK remains divided and could break up if Scotland demands a new independence referendum. The pound sterling and the British economy are in a free fall. Prime Minister David Cameron is bowing out — history will judge him harshly. In various other European countries populist parties are using Brexit to stir up anti-European sentiment.
Brexit is not only an expression of the rejection of Europe but also an expression of insecurity about the future. An insecurity experienced predominantly by people who feel marginalized, who have lost their faith in politics and in the established order. ‘No’ to the EU of Brussels is also ‘no’ to the London establishment. Those who voted to leave the EU do not know what the future will bring. But they do know that they expect something different from their political leaders.
Brexit is bad news particularly at this moment, when Europe needs to speak with one voice. Europe needs to come together to solve the refugee question, which is far from over. Europe needs to come together to find political solutions to violence, repression and instability at Europe’s borders. Europe needs to come together to breath new life into the ideal of a united Europe.
Brexit represents a formidable challenge for European politics. Political leaders are facing three tasks which they have to handle simultaneously. Firstly, they have to take seriously the discontent many people feel, not through political rhetoric but through concrete plans to tackle growing inequality. Secondly, they have to repel populist parties’ attacks on Europe, not by co-opting the populist narrative but through inspiring people with the ideal of a just society. Thirdly, they have to promote the dream of a united and peaceful Europe and make it concrete so that people start to believe in it again.
The ravage from Brexit is enormous. But today’s result masks a deeper tragedy. The very people who hoped to improve their lives by voting against Europe will be the ones to pay the highest price for Brexit.