BERLIN — Britain’s historic vote to leave the European Union plunges the 28-nation bloc into an existential crisis, dealing the dream of an integrated Europe its greatest blow since the march toward unity began in the aftermath of World War II.
That effort now faces a great leap back, with Britain’s exit carrying global ramifications. Its departure is set to upend trade deals and is already roiling financial markets, including those in Asia, North America and Europe. It will splinter — and significantly weaken — the E.U., the bloc of nations most closely allied with the United States. A newly divided Europe, observers fret, may also embolden Russia while diluting the power and influence of the West.
The fear of E.U. supporters now is that the British vote may have captured a zeitgeist, a deep-seated resentment of globalization that spans the Atlantic, a feeling that may translate into greater nationalism and a stand-alone mentality. The question is whether Britain’s move to become the first nation to exit the union will mark the start of a cascade of similar referendums that could threaten the bloc’s very survival.
Populists across Europe lauded the British vote as an opportunity to abandon the “European project” of political and economic unity. Right-wing leaders in France and Holland, among other countries, tweeted their support for E.U.-exit referendums.
As it departs the union, Britain may lose much of its voice in European affairs. But the rest of Europe stands to suffer, too; most experts predict at least a freezing if not a serious rollback of decades of strides toward regional integration. The E.U., experts say, will be forced to take a hard look at itself. Its caretakers now must undertake not only a messy extraction of Britain, but a reinvention of the bloc in a manner that makes it more accessible and vital to voters across Europe.
Britain’s exit is likely to provoke “a crisis of tremendous proportions, one beyond any that we have known so far,” said Steven Blockmans, a senior research fellow at the Center for European Policy Studies. “You are not dealing with just one crisis but several interlocking ones.”
Even if the rest of the E.U. manages to hold itself together without Britain, the fallout could still be severe. A continent already facing a convergence of woes — including a refugee crisis, lingering sovereign debt problems and a continuing, low-grade war in Ukraine — will now find its attention monopolized by protracted negotiations over Britain’s withdrawal.
“Uncertainty and unpredictability always create challenges to our security,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in an interview Friday. “It is a more unpredictable situation now than before the U.K. decided to leave.”
When the E.U. and Britain finally do part ways — a process expected to take at least two years — the bloc will be greatly diminished.
Gone will be its most significant military and diplomatic power, as well as the second-largest economy in a union stretching from Ireland to Greece, Latvia to Portugal. What’s left will be a bloc more centered than ever on its most populous and economically powerful nation — Germany.
That reality is likely to generate new tensions.
The Germans remain reluctant leaders unwilling to embrace the kind of muscular diplomacy, backed by military strength, that the region may need to exert serious global influence. Some of Germany’s neighbors, mindful of two world wars in the 20th century, still distrust Berlin.
Those old concerns are now compounded by newer ones — notably Berlin’s insistence on strict fiscal discipline as the linchpin of E.U. membership. A strain of fear is already running through the German government as it contemplates the loss of Britain — whose conservative prime minister, David Cameron, largely backed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s austerity crusade. Berlin now fears a “ganging up” by nations including France, Spain and Italy, which may seek to overthrow Merkel’s austerity-first policy.
Yet, if the Germans do not lead, who will? France is too distracted, a nation mired in economic stagnation and a war on terror. The Italians and the Spanish, meanwhile, are still struggling with financial hardship, political volatility and large-scale unemployment.
“In some ways, we [Germans] are feeling what the United States often experiences,” said Jürgen Hardt, foreign policy spokesman in the German Parliament for the ruling coalition. “When a strong nation is not leading, everybody asks, ‘Where is the leadership?’ But then, if you take responsibility and start to lead on some things, they say ‘Oh, we don’t want a single leadership.’ ”
Britain’s exit is set to deal an especially powerful blow to Brussels, the seat of the much-maligned E.U. institutions. Baked into the city is a sense that the European Union can only expand, not contract, with grand construction projects breaking ground to house more European bureaucrats. Until just a few weeks ago, few officials in the E.U. capital actually expected that Britain could leave, diplomats and analysts said. No detailed plans for what to do in the event of a departure have been drawn up, leaving officials scrambling for a response now.
The vote leaves a question mark over the futures of more than 3 million non-British E.U. citizens living in Britain — from Polish plumbers to Italian restaurateurs — and the more than 1 million Britons living in continental Europe. Yet some argue that perhaps this is for the best. Britain, a holdout on joining the region’s common currency, the euro, was always different. And those supporting the exit campaign dismiss the negative rhetoric as doomsaying.
“We can find our voice in the world again, a voice that is commensurate with the fifth-biggest economy on Earth,” former London mayor Boris Johnson, an exit supporter, told reporters in London. “I believe we now have a glorious opportunity: We can pass our laws and set our taxes entirely according to the needs of the U.K. economy,” said Johnson, a Conservative member of Parliament who could replace Cameron.
Despite polls showing high distrust of the E.U. in several member states, and increasing anti-Brussels sentiment from governments such as those in Poland and Hungary, some observers say Britain may be an outlier. Historically, its emotional links to the continent have been tenuous at best — Britain often sees the English Channel as a cultural as well as a physical barrier between it and Europe.
At the same time, less influential nations — particularly in Eastern Europe — have gained hugely from E.U. grants and labor mobility laws that have granted young Poles, Slovaks and Czechs the ability to find jobs just as easily in Berlin, Munich or Paris as in their home countries.
“There is no other member state with a majority in favor of leaving the European Union, even not in those states with governments critical of the E.U., like Poland or Hungary,” said Hardt, the German lawmaker. “The mood in those states is not comparable to the mood in Britain. I do not think they are close to having 50 percent of the people willing to leave.”
Birnbaum reported from Brussels.