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Why the Brexit Vote Is Making Everyone Panic

We all fear that the referendum is a sign of the times, a turn away from collaboration and toward insularity

For those of us in distant California, the panic over Great Britain’s vote to leave the European Union feels a little overblown. The warnings of financial disaster, of long-term damage to the British economy, the prospect of the flight of capital and multinational corporations feels indistinct and exaggerated.

But that’s the thing about momentous decisions like this one: They don’t show their colors right away. They drip-drip-drip over time and before you and your Facebook group realize that the effects of leaving the European Union may be profound, the course of history will already have been changed.

My read — having lived in Europe for many years and covered the establishment of the Eurozone, the dropping of borders on the Continent and the transition to a single currency — is that Britain will survive, more or less intact. Don’t forget: England never gave up its own currency, and was always a somewhat reluctant partner in the European experiment.

But the larger risk is what is driving this palpable fear, why so many leaders and experts are near hysterics about the vote. We all fear that the referendum is a sign of the times. That Britain’s decision is a first volley by voters in Western democracies to turn away from alliances and collaboration and look inward toward narrow self-interest.

Turning away will undermine the hard-won prosperity that comes with shared resources and laws, and in past centuries has led to rivalry — and war.

These movements toward insularity usually go hand in hand with rejection of other ethnicities and a championing of nationalism, which is already a movement well underway throughout Europe and — courtesy of the Donald Trump campaign — here in America.

In the week before the Brexit vote it went hand in hand with violence with the horrific, fatal shooting of MP Jo Cox.

As The New York Times ominously pronounced on Friday:

“Their stunning vote to leave the European Union presents a political, economic and existential crisis for a bloc already reeling from entrenched problems. But the thumb-in-your-eye message is hardly limited to Britain. The same yawning gap between the elite and mass opinion is fueling a populist backlash in Austria, France, Germany and elsewhere on the Continent — as well as in the United States.”

That populist backlash was the kind of thing that led to the rise of Adolf Hitler. He began by scratching a nationalist itch among his people to balance the indignities left by a lopsided peace settlement in World War One. It ended with mountains of dead, from Japan to America to Britain, across the European continent and Soviet Union. Tens of millions of lives lost, destruction wrought, havoc sowed.

We cannot go back that way, and that is why we are all looking at yesterday’s vote and staring down the decades to come — in fear.

French President Francois Mitterrand made the project to unify Europe his singular obsession during his presidency. He was determined to keep the Continent from ever again being awash in the blood of war.

But he did not dare entrust the decision to his people, as British Prime Minister David Cameron chose to do.

I lived in France during those years. Despite being a Socialist, Mitterrand was fundamentally an imperial figure, who did his level best to impose his view on his countrymen and other European partners, principally Germany.

The ripple effects of this vote could help Trump in his absurdist quest for the presidency. It validates the popular anger that drives his supporters, and provides a sense of historic momentum.

He has said as much, as he happened to set foot in Scotland (a country that wants to stay in Europe, but is likely to leave Great Britain as a result of the vote).

“Basically, they took back their country,” he said Friday morning from Scotland, where he was promoting his golf courses. “That’s a good thing.” And he added that people were not done expressing their anger with the establishment: “U.K. U.S. There’s plenty of other places. This will not be the last.”

He’s right about that. The momentum that in its worst incarnation curdles into outright xenophobia and racism will be on display as Europe faces one election after another, the next one in Spain on Sunday. There, the Podemos party, a far left-wing movement that came from an anti-corruption posture but now exists in part to oppose the European Union’s policies, is likely to get a boost.