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A man takes a copy of the London Evening Standard with the front page reporting the resignation of British Prime Minister David Cameron and the vote to leave the EU in a referendum. (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)
A man takes a copy of the London Evening Standard with the front page reporting the resignation of British Prime Minister David Cameron and the vote to leave the EU in a referendum. (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

Globe editorial

The Brexit vote is complete folly, but there is still time to reverse it Add to ...

First, the anger.

It is appalling that fear has won the day in Britain. In a result so close – 52 per cent Leave versus 48 Remain – it is inevitable that voters motivated by the veiled racism in the anti-immigration rhetoric of the Leave side had a direct impact on the outcome.

They may also have fallen for empty promises of a better life. On the morning after the vote, Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, said it was a “mistake” to mislead voters into thinking a Leave vote would put £350-million into the health system overnight. A “mistake.” One that people no doubt based their votes on.

Some Leave voters were already expressing buyer’s remorse in media interviews on Friday, wondering what they had gotten themselves and their country into. Angry populism that had promised “independence” had delivered isolation and uncertainty instead.

Boris Johnson, the opportunist who backed the Leave side in his eagerness to take control of the ruling Conservative Party, said, “This does not mean that the United Kingdom will be in any way less united, nor indeed does it mean that it will be in any way less European.” But he is fooling himself and those who listen to him.

So much has been thrown into doubt. The foundational tenets of modern capitalism – that free trade brings prosperity and is the surest way of ensuring the peaceful co-existence of nations – have been rejected by one of the most advanced trading nations in the world.

The British pound has collapsed, stock markets are plunging and, contrary to Mr. Johnson’s assertion, the future of the U.K. is very much in doubt. Scotland and Northern Ireland are both better off in the EU, and both voted heavily for the Remain side. They now have more ammunition than ever to argue their case for independence. England, where the Leave side won, has no ammunition at all – none – with which to fight back.

The whole bloody mess would never have happened were it not for Prime Minister David Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum as a means of securing his re-election. His misjudgment will go down in British history as one of Neville Chamberlain proportions.

It is especially galling for Canadians to see this result after going through two referendums on the breakup of the country and coming out the other side as a united, stronger nation. We are evidence that moving forward and settling disputes in a respectful fashion are the surest ways of bringing prosperity, and now the country from which we were spawned has turned its back on that lesson.

There is so much to be bitter about. This is a victory for the Donald Trumps of the world: those who blame newcomers and other vulnerable groups for their problems. Who rhapsodize about “better times.” Who sneer at “elites” and “experts” who urge them to be open to free trade and immigration. Who want to build walls instead of bridges. Who prefer to tear up intricately linked trade deals rather than work to improve them. Who push nativist propaganda that is blind to the darker lessons of history.

Who ever imagined that Britain – rational, modern, sophisticated Britain – would turn out to be the wind beneath Mr. Trump’s wings?

What has happened is pure folly. But a more useful exercise than bitter recrimination is to begin the journey from anger to acceptance. Britain held a referendum and its people have spoken. It will remain a full member of the EU for at least two years, however. This is the reality. What comes next is what matters now.

The first decision on U.K.’s part will be about when to invoke Article 50, the clause that sets the two-year clock running on negotiations for leaving the EU. This is entirely in Britain’s control, much to the chagrin of Europe. Mr. Cameron said he would invoke it immediately; Mr. Johnson says there is no rush.

Waiting is the wiser move. The U.K. will have a stronger bargaining position with the EU, and with Scotland and Northern Ireland, if there remains a chance the departure mechanism will not be triggered. Britain can use the referendum result as a bargaining chip as long as Article 50 isn’t invoked. Once it is, though, Europe holds all the cards.

Europe is in a difficult situation. Having suffered through two world wars, European leaders designed the EU to unite old enemies in a common market and reduce the chance of further conflict. France and Germany, the two powerhouses, can’t afford to allow EU members to come and go as they please, or to use the threat of leaving as a form of blackmail.

The EU will want to make an example of Britain, and it has powerful weapons in its arsenal to do so. It can strip British citizens of their right to work on the continent. It could also take away British companies’ access to EU markets – a devastating loss given that the U.K. does 40 per cent of its trade with Europe.

But it is also in the EU’s interests to keep Britain in. It is better for both sides.

If there is an opportunity for redemption, it lies in this limbo before Article 50 is invoked. Once the U.K. flips that switch, there may be no going back. Right now, U.K. and EU officials have the breathing room to try to come to a mutual arrangement that would allow the status quo to remain with only modest changes.

It will be an incredibly difficult balance to achieve. Anything the EU concedes to Britain it will have to also concede to other recalcitrant member nations. But it is far better than entering the wormhole of the final, irreversible phase of separation, at which point the U.K. will have to renegotiate virtually all of its free-trade agreements at once, and its economy will be mired in prolonged uncertainty.

If a deal were reached, the U.K. could hold another referendum, this one based on substance, not on emotion. Don’t rush to leave, Britain. You’ve made one horrible mistake. Don’t make another.

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