LONDON – Voters in the United Kingdom have done the unthinkable, choosing to leave the European Union – a truly noble project that, whatever its shortcomings, has promoted peace and stability across the continent for more than a half-century. Markets have tumbled, Britain’s prime minister has announced that he will resign, and the UK is more divided than ever. And the consequences – for the UK, the EU, and the world – may be just beginning.
The “Brexit” vote represents a triumph of fear over reason. “Leave” campaigners mendaciously and recklessly capitalized on popular distrust of the ruling elites and discontent about growing inequality and rapid social change to advance their own interests. In a relentless anti-immigration campaign, the Brexiteers, together with tabloid media, peddled distorted facts and outright lies about the impact of migration, thereby convincing fearful and frustrated voters that immigration and the EU, which requires freedom of movement among member states, are responsible for virtually all of Britain’s social woes. Many of the Leave campaign’s leading actors have been antagonistic toward the EU for decades.
It is a trend that can be seen in much of the developed world. Populist demagogues are arguing that migration is draining national resources and eroding national sovereignty. The only way to regain control, they claim, is to batten down the hatches and retreat from international alliances, behind national borders.
It is not that all of the those who voted to leave the EU, or others around the world who also feel left behind, were acting simply out of intolerance and extreme nationalism. But many have embraced the ludicrous story, served up by the populists, that their countries are being overrun by migrants, who will exacerbate the social and economic challenges that they face. In Europe, the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean – fueled largely by the forced displacement of people fleeing war and criminal violence – has heightened such concerns in recent months.