PARIS – The news this morning that the people of Britain had voted to leave the European Union created shock waves across Europe, with mainstream political leaders warning that the union could unravel and the far-right jubilantly calling for similar referendums in France, Italy and the Netherlands.
“It’s an electroshock,” said the French prime minister, Manuel Valls. “At stake is the break-up pure and simple of the union. Now is the time to invent another Europe.”
He did not mean that the formerly 28-member EU, now reduced to 27, would suddenly cease to exist. Instead, he was warning that the British vote could create a domino effect at a time when Europeans increasingly resent the fact that major decisions affecting their daily lives are being handed down not by their own governments but by unelected officials in Brussels.
Growing bitterness in Europe over loss of national sovereignty is matched by feelings that the European Union, which is dominated by Germany, may have erred in deciding to open the union’s borders to citizens of poorer countries, who have flooded into richer lands. In cities like Paris or Rome, beggars from Romania are now a frequent sight.
While the political mainstream dithers in search of humane solutions, the far right simply wants to sweep the immigrants out.
“Now it’s our turn,” the Dutch populist leader Geert Wilders gloated today upon hearing the news from Britain. “We want to be in charge of our own country, our own money, our own borders and our own immigration policy.”
In France, Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme-right National Front, tweeted that the British exit vote, known as “Brexit,” should be followed by “Frexit.” Italy’s xenophobic Northern League swiftly followed suit.
The stakes are clearly high, and throughout the day the tone has gotten worse. Could the British vote mean the end of the world order as we know it?
Some say yes, it could. “Britain’s vote to leave the EU is the most damaging blow ever inflicted on the liberal democratic order that was created under U.S. auspices after 1945,” the British political commentator Tony Barber wrote in today’s Financial Times. “Pandora’s box is well and truly open.”
His feeling is shared by many from left to right across Europe. The EU, despite its unwieldiness and sometimes questionable political decisions, is seen as a bulwark against the kind of European divisions that led to World War II – especially now, when populism is rising in countries like Poland, Hungary and, yes, even France.
The consequences of the British vote may be felt very soon in other countries. Both national borders and establishment politicians are in the line of fire.
In Scotland – where a referendum on leaving the United Kingdom was defeated in 2014, but where the Scots voted solidly yesterday to remain within the EU – the current leader, Nicola Sturgeon, called today for a new referendum on Scottish independence. If the Scots break away, commentators have fretted, Great Britain may find itself reduced to Little England.
The British vote is likely to fuel separatist movements in other countries as well.
Asked today for his reaction to the British vote, Ricard Viñas, a 39-year-old tourist from Barcelona who was visiting Paris, said, “We are more interested in Scotland’s reaction because we are Catalonians.”
Spain, meanwhile, immediately called for joint sovereignty over Gibraltar, the small British enclave at its southern tip, where voters overwhelming backed remaining within the EU.
In France, which will elect a new president next May, there are fears that Marine Le Pen will profit from the British vote. The rightist leader, who vehemently supports leaving the EU, is one of the country’s most popular politicians, although she is viewed as unlikely to gain the presidency – this time.
“For the extreme right, this is kind of their ‘Yes We Can’ moment,” said Florence Bourgès-Maunoury, a Paris resident. “It shows that the EU needs to have a rethink.”
In Greece, which has suffered under EU policies to reform its battered economy, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras warned that Brexit would be “either a wake-up call or the beginning of a dangerous path for European people.”
In a front-page editorial, the newspaper Le Monde agreed. “Worst of all would be to continue as before, with a dynamic that, rightly or wrongly, generates more euroscepticism than euro-enthusiasm.”
Others put the message to the EU more starkly. Moments after news broke this morning came a tweet from France's ambassador in Washington, DC:
“Reform or die!”
Meg Bortin is an American journalist based in Paris.