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The Brexit Revolt

LONDON – With its vote to leave the European Union, the United Kingdom has staged a revolt so forceful that it will shake – and potentially even destroy – the European project. Indeed, as the UK pursues its extraordinary experiment in applied democracy, there will undoubtedly be calls elsewhere in Europe – mostly in northern countries like Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, and Sweden – to follow the British example. But what are those who would leave revolting against?

The EU was built in the aftermath of World War II as a way, finally, to escape Europe’s centuries-long legacy of violent conflict. Following two brutal wars in which the creation and competing ambitions of nation-states played a central role, Europeans embraced internationalism as the foundation of a new political order, one that had to be protected at all costs.

To that end, it was crucial to construct supranational bodies that tied Europeans to one another and, in the name of integration, imposed limits on individual countries. European courts became responsible for protecting the rule of law, and new institutions such as the European Central Bank asserted increasing control over the economy.

As a result, Europe quickly came to resemble a nagging nanny, constantly telling countries what they couldn’t do, from trying to spend their way out of economic crisis to paying their pensioners the benefits they deserve. Feeling constrained in their capacity to manage the massive economic challenges they faced, countries began to turn on Europe, with anti-EU campaigners, particularly in smaller countries like Greece, claiming that they had faced unfair, even cruel, treatment. The dream of easy prosperity through integration seemed to be dead.