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The Brexit vote wasn't really about commerce. It was about immigration, sovereignty and raw emotion.

But the consequences of the referendum will have sweeping effects on trade – in Britain, across Europe and beyond.

It's a hit to trade flows, but also to the promise of trade.

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The bold and grand experiment that is the European Union – the world's largest functioning common market – has suffered a serious and potentially fatal blow.

The greatest casualty is the notion that open borders, common rules and the free movement of people lead to greater prosperity for everyone.

June 23 will go down in history as a key milestone in the long march of the anti-globalization movement.

Isolation and protectionism are winning out over openness and free trade.

The argument in favour of economic integration is as compelling as ever. Open economies grow faster than closed economies. They are also more productive and innovative, and have higher standards of living, better infrastructure and stronger institutions.

Unfortunately, countries generally have done too little to ease the burden for workers dislocated by free trade and to counter growing economic inequality.

The result is that proponents of open markets are losing the political and emotional case.

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The anti-globalization movement began in the mid-1990s with attacks on the key symbols of international co-operation, including the World Trade Organization, Group of Seven, International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Massive and sometimes violent anti-trade protests spread around the world from Seattle, where global leaders met in 1999 to strike a new WTO deal. There were large demonstrations in Canada – at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in 2001 and the G20 in Toronto in 2010.

The Doha round of talks at the WTO, whose stated goal was to make trade rules fairer for developing countries, stalled and then fizzled out in the mid-2000s.

The dream of extending the reach of the North American free-trade agreement beyond Mexico into the rest of Latin America missed a key 2005 deadline for completion and went dormant. No one talks about the Free Trade Area of the Americas any more.

Now NAFTA itself is under assault. The deal has become a dirty word in the U.S. – the country that hatched the agreement in the first place. The two main candidates vying to be president of the world's largest economy – Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump – are both campaigning to overhaul, if not scrap, the deal.

There has been a flurry of bilateral regional deals, including the Canada-Europe free-trade deal (reached in 2014) and the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (2015). Neither deal has yet been ratified, and both are more likely to produce regional trade advantages than further the cause of global free trade.

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One irony of Britain's decision to leave the 28-member European Union is that the biggest winner may be China – seen by many as the demon of globalization. China is Brexit's "biggest beneficiary in aggregate welfare terms" because it stands to steal market share in both Britain and the rest of Europe as both sides lose their preferential access to each others' markets, according to a 2015 study by Canadian economist Dan Ciuriak for Open Europe, a London and Brussels-based think tank.

The same study identified Ireland as the biggest loser, due to its close ties to Britain, including a common border with Northern Ireland.

Counterintuitive, perhaps, but Britain's best option now may be to double-down on free trade and open markets.

Britain could, for example, minimize the damage to its trade and supply chains by leaving the EU but retaining trade ties – as Norway did after rejecting EU membership in a 1994 referendum. The arrangement gives Norway all of the benefits of the common market, but no say in how it's run.

Britain could also opt for unilateral trade liberalization, removing all trade restrictions, while pursuing free-trade agreements with the U.S., Canada and major Asian economies, including China, Japan and India. Mr. Ciuriak estimates that could nearly offset the sharp economic losses caused by Brexit.

The antidote to Brexit is more trade, not less.

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