I’m sitting here looking at my burgundy-red British passport, with EUROPEAN UNION emblazoned in gold letters across the top. I’ve fastened the shirt I’m wearing with cufflinks which have the UK flag on one side, and the German flag on the other—my proud European heritage. I’m thinking about everything I loved about growing up in London: the food, the culture, the fact that in one teeming, vibrant city you could find the entire world. I’m thinking about the single happiest moment that I ever saw my (German) mother, when I ran into the kitchen and told her to come, watch the TV, the Berlin Wall was coming down, the unthinkable was happening. Europe was really, truly, coming together.
And I’m grieving. Because that world—the world of hope, the world of ever-closer union among countries which for centuries would kill each other by the million—came to a shattering end on Thursday.
It happened with a wholly unnecessary vote, which was called by Britain’s gormless prime minister, David Cameron, for the sole purpose of trying to engineer a tactical advantage in last year’s general election. The Brexit referendum—the referendum that sealed the fate of an entire continent—should never have happened in the first place. But even though the decision to call the referendum was truly idiotic, the responsibility for the outcome still rests on the shoulders of the British people—and, specifically, of the English people.
Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU; Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain. England drove this result, and specifically Little England—the older, whiter areas outside the big cities. The Leave campaign might have paid superficial lip service to the idea of a global Britain with more room for Bangladeshi immigrants, but make no mistake: this was a racist campaign that ended up causing both death and disaster.
The world’s bond markets (and, even more, its foreign-exchange markets) tell you everything you need to know about the financial implications of this vote: recession in the UK, quite possibly recession in Europe, and extremely nasty spillover effects in the rest of the world, including the U.S. The small-minded burghers of rural England have managed to destroy trillions of dollars of value globally, including to their own investments, pension plans, and housing values. And things will get worse before they get worse: it’s going to take a while for all the subsequent shoes to drop.
Make no mistake, the forces set in motion by this vote will not end here. France and Spain will want their own referendums; so will Scotland. Northern Ireland—the only part of the UK which has a land border with another EU country—will request and probably receive a referendum on whether it should just rejoin the Republic of Ireland, and Europe.
Britain has been in many ways the most unambiguous winner of the European project: it received all the advantages of free trade with an enormous economic bloc, while also having a floating currency instead of one which was pegged mercilessly to how things were going in Germany. The British vote will embolden demands across Europe for similar votes, many of which will have the same result. This is, in other words, the beginning of the end of Europe as we know it.
This vote is also the grimmest of reminders of the power still held by the older generation, not only in the UK but around the world. Young Britons—the multicultural generation which grew up in and of Europe, the people who have only ever known European passports—voted overwhelmingly to remain. They’re the generation that just lost its future. Meanwhile, Britons over the age of 65, fed a diet of lies by a sensationalist UK press, voted by a large margin to leave. Most of them did so out of a misplaced belief that doing so might reduce immigration, or make them better off, or save them from meddling bureaucrats. In a couple of decades, most of those voters will be dead. But the consequences of their actions will resonate far beyond the grave.
In calling this vote, David Cameron has opened up a true Pandora’s Box. The forces of narrow-minded nationalism have tasted a major victory; they will want more, much more. The economic malaise that has beset all of Europe for the past decade will work in their favor, as will the growing inequality that can be seen in almost every country worldwide. International institutions like the European Union, born of an idealistic belief in peace and prosperity, have become avatars of unaccountable power, and are much loathed by the suffering European middle classes.
The result is that we are now entering a world in retreat from progress, a world of atavistic nationalisms and mutual distrust, a world in which we demonize foreigners and prefer walls to bridges.
In November, the U.S. will have its own plebiscite, and will likely vote along similar lines to Britain. The cities, and the young, will vote for progress, inclusion, and unity. Meanwhile, the white, rural areas and the old will vote for a sepia-tinged dream of a past in which equality was something only straight white men really qualified for.
Before the Brexit vote, I didn’t believe it could happen here. But Britain is significantly more cosmopolitan than America, and we managed to shoot ourselves (and all of Europe) straight through the heart.
So, be afraid. The arc of the moral universe might bend towards justice, but it gets there in a very, very messy way. And after taking many steps forward, the world has now taken a giant step back.