Moments after the startling results of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union emerged, anti-immigrant crusaders in other parts of Europe gave notice they, too, would try to get their countries to leave.
Here in the Netherlands, populist politician Geert Wilders unleashed a Twitter storm of jubilation, declaring, “And the Netherlands will be next!” His French counterpart, Marine Le Pen, said she and her far-right National Front would try to organize a “Frexit,” a referendum to take France out of the EU.
The calls for Frexit or for a “Nexit,” as the nascent campaign to pull out the Netherlands is called, are a clear sign that the EU — one of the mainstays of global stability after World War II — may start to unravel altogether.
While much of the initial focus of the “Brexit” vote has turned to financial markets, which opened in a state of panic Friday, they are only the first and most tangible sign of the powerful impact of the vote.
A more subtle and important consequence of a weakened, and perhaps ultimately defunct EU, is what it could do to democracy, human rights and the rule of law beyond its own borders.
For decades, a dazzling achievement of the EU has been its ability to attract other counties to its model. Former Communist bloc nations have aspired to become part of Europe. The EU gave them a road map. It is a road map that, if followed by all countries, would increase peace, stability and well-being across the globe.
To join, EU hopefuls must satisfy the so-called Copenhagen criteria. The first, the one that must be met before a country is officially considered a candidate, is “(s)tability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for the protection of minorities.”
With that clause, the EU exerted an outsize positive influence across the entire European continent. Impoverished nations dreaming of joining the union found it necessary to improve the way they dispensed justice; they worked to fight against prejudice; they at least tried to improve their treatment of religious, ethnic and even gender-identity minorities.
While the citizens of comparatively rich Western European countries have been pondering whether or not to stay in the EU, countries to the East have been dreaming of joining, and working to meet the requirements. A couple of months ago, during a trip to Albania, I was startled to discover the country has a full ministry, the Ministry of European Integration, dedicated to the task of fulfilling Europe’s membership requirements.
Obviously, would-be EU members are enticed more than anything by the economic benefits of membership, but the EU beckons as something more than a prosperity club. It is a club of freedom, of good governance, of opportunity and respect for individuals.
Is it flawed? No doubt. There are reasons why so many want to leave. A recent poll found 47% of people in key European countries have unfavorable views of the EU. Concerns about having to obey Brussels’ bureaucratic rules have simmered for years, but they heated up after the Greek bailout and boiled over with the current refugee crisis.
The champions of European integration seem to have rejected the notion that citizens of individual countries value their national identity and prize their ability to chart their own course. At the very least, EU leaders need to trim the union’s sails, reduce their ambitions and backtrack; move closer to the original idea of creating an economic union, while holding fast to requirements that allow only true democracies to join.
What happened in Britain and is now inspiring anti-Europe activists elsewhere would have been troubling at any time. But it is much more distressing — and dangerous — now.
It is no coincidence that the forces tearing apart the European Union are gaining strength even as we are seeing an alarming rise in nationalism, nativism and autocracy. This is occurring in an environment that has brought us smooth-talking demagogues exploiting people’s fears and prejudices. It is precisely the moment when the values that the EU promotes are most needed, but it is also, not surprisingly, when they are most sharply under attack.
The British decision weakens Western unity. It is a moment of triumph for autocratic leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is watching his foes — the democratic countries that imposed sanctions against Russia after he attacked Ukraine — fight amongst themselves. And let’s remember, Putin went after Ukraine for one specific reason: to keep it from drawing closer to the EU.
If the EU unravels, it will be a slow, dispiriting process. We should hope for good leadership, particularly in the United States, to save the Western alliance and its economic, political and moral appeal.
Will the Netherlands leave? While economic and political leaders here say it would be a mistake and call the Brexit vote “a major blow, an earthquake,” a Dutch exit from Europe is quite conceivable.
Much like other right-wing politicians, Wilders was once a fringe figure. But that has changed. His Party for Freedom leads in the polls. Elections are scheduled for March, and after Thursday’s vote in Britain, “Nexit” becomes a top issue for the campaign.
After the vote results. European Council President Donald Tusk mused, “I always remember what my father used to tell me: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” The Brexit vote may well end up killing the EU.
If European leaders display uncanny wisdom, maybe, just maybe, it will ultimately make the EU stronger. But at the risk of disagreeing with Tusk’s father, the vote is more likely to weaken the European Union, strengthen its foes and undermine the quality of democracy across the European continent.