Katie Laatikainen, Ph.D., weighs in on the United Kingdom's recent decision to leave the European Union.

On June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union–a decision sure to have major global implications. To help make sense of this historic development, we spoke with Katie Laatikainen, Ph.D., professor of political science and author specializing in European affairs and politics.

Katie Laatikainen, Ph.D.

Katie Laatikainen, Ph.D.

What do you think of the United Kingdom’s decision? Did you anticipate it?

For those of us who study the European Union, there has been a slow build-up to this vote and an observable rise in euroskepticism over the last decade or so. Several treaty revisions have been rejected by referenda in various member states, including Ireland, France and the Netherlands. Other member states, including the United Kingdom, have negotiated opt-outs during treaty reforms that have deepened integration. But this is the first time in the 60-year history of the European Project that a member state has turned its back on the union altogether. The narrative of the E.U. is that it has integrated by addressing crises, but the slow build-up of discontent combined with the euro-crisis and the migrant crisis crossed a threshold in the business-as-usual E.U. approach.

Are you in touch with friends/colleagues about it? What are they saying?

We have been discussing this for months while the United States has been navel-gazing during our own political season. A colleague at LSE and I coauthored a blog about the implications of Brexit for diplomacy at the United Nations.

As for my colleagues in the U.K. with whom I collaborate, they worry about the impact this will have on their colleagues who hail from the continent, the students that in the past flocked to study in the U.K., and their own eligibility for the significant research funds that are distributed to university networks in the E.U. They will likely lose access to those.  It is a major blow to academia.

What do you think drove it?

There seems to be a reaction against globalizing forces of disruption, and the vote seems to hearken back to a world in which sovereignty was more firmly entrenched. The generational divide in the vote is rather telling. The E.U. became a symbol of a loss of control and an unaccountable bureaucracy.

What does it mean for Britain politically and economically?

Britain will likely invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty on withdrawal of membership next week at a European Council meeting; then the E.U.’s 27 remaining members will meet without the U.K. to determine how to proceed.  Once the article is invoked, there is a two-year period to negotiate the divorce.  During that time, Britain remains a member of the E.U. and subject to its laws and regulations until the deadline of exit (unless it is unanimously agreed to extend it). Everything has to be negotiated, and this will be all-consuming and highly political. Unless there is an extension, at the end of two years, Britain will be out regardless of what arrangements have been negotiated but not agreed.

What does it mean for the EU?

This has emboldened euroskeptics in other countries to propose similar referenda.  The divide that we saw in Britain between the cosmopolitan, urban areas and the resistant rural areas can be widely applied across the continent.  This includes long-standing members of France and the Netherlands. Merkel in Germany has faced resistance for promoting a European vision as well in the aftermath of the refugee crisis.

This vote diminishes both the E.U. and Britain in broader world affairs, and arguably upsets the delicate balance that has allowed the E.U. to act collectively in foreign affairs. Germany becomes a much stronger pole within Europe, and that discomforts the French and the Poles to say nothing of the countries farther south that have been subject to German austerity demands during the bailouts. I strongly doubt that the E.U. will disappear, but we are in for a period of retrenchment.

What does it mean for other countries and markets?

When Europe is preoccupied internally, it has never been good for the rest of the world.  Small problems around the world will be allowed to fester and will become larger ones, which are much more difficult to address. This sense of insularity is emanating from the U.S. as well, and it compounds the global outlook.  If we see broader dynamics of retrenchment, and all the signs point in that direction from the U.S. to BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) to Europe, we are in for a very protracted slowdown globally and lots of regional instability.

What does it mean for the U.S. election?

Either it emboldens those who are eager to throw out the political class or it wakes them up to the costs of doing so.

Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

I wish this were not so shocking to Americans.  This has been building for months, but you wouldn’t know it here in the U.S. Sometimes by caring about politics far away, we can learn a different perspective on politics, how it is the same and how it is different, and in that way we just might come to care, or at least respect those on the other side of our own political divides.

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Todd Wilson
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