LONDON – Until the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, the refugee crisis was the greatest problem Europe faced. Indeed, that crisis played a critical role in bringing about the greater calamity of Brexit.
The vote for Brexit was a great shock; the morning after the vote, the disintegration of the European Union seemed practically inevitable. Brewing crises in other EU countries, especially Italy, deepened the dark forecast for the EU’s survival.
But as the initial shock of the British referendum wears off, something unexpected is happening: the tragedy no longer looks like a fait accompli. Many British voters have started to feel a degree of “buyer’s remorse” as the hypothetical becomes real. Sterling has plunged. Another Scottish referendum has become highly likely. The erstwhile leaders of the “Leave” campaign have engaged in a peculiar bout of internecine self-destruction, and some of their followers have started to glimpse the bleak future that both the country and they personally face. A sign of the shift in public opinion has been a campaign, supported by more than four million people so far, to petition Parliament to hold a second referendum.
Just as Brexit was a negative surprise, the spontaneous response to it is a positive one. People on both sides of the cause – most important, those who didn’t even vote (particularly young people under 35) – have become mobilized. This is the kind of grassroots involvement that the EU has never been able to generate.