In a stunning victory for the anti-establishment forces that have upended mainstream politics across the Western world, British voters chose on Thursday to pull their country out of the European Union, sending global markets into a tailspin and encouraging anti-E.U. forces across the continent to push for their own referenda on whether to break away.
“The E.U. is failing, the E.U. is dying,” declared the leader of the U.K. Independence Party, Nigel Farage, one of the leaders of the campaign for the British exit, or Brexit, from the union formed from the ruins of Europe after World War II. “It’s a victory against big business…against big politics,” he told reporters early on Friday morning, as the results showed 52% of the votes had been cast in favor of leaving and 48% against.
That margin of victory – amounting to around 1.3 million votes – did not simply repudiate the British government’s calls for openness and unity with Europe. It also offered a blueprint for how ballot-box insurgencies across the West could, in the course of a single campaign, shatter the legitimacy of the ruling elites.
This formula is a familiar one, drawing fuel from a potent mix of xenophobia and angst over the loss of sovereignty and national identity. In the last couple of years, it has been deployed with explosive effects across Europe — and looks set to define the race for the U.S. presidency.