In the coming days and weeks, there will be a great deal of hysteria and discussion about what Britain’s vote to exit the EU means. We will publish a Deep Dive on the subject on Wednesday that will address how we forecast the fragmentation of Europe and what lies ahead. In the meantime, one of the most important things to watch is the reaction of other European states.
The above chart drives home the challenge currently facing the European Union. Euroskepticism has too often been dismissed as provincial and inconsequential. Neither of these characterizations are true. To take just one example, Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front Party in France, supports a French referendum on EU membership, and is already renewing calls for a referendum after yesterday’s vote in Britain.
Le Pen is not the fringe in France. She is the mainstream. Fifty-five percent of French citizens in this poll say they want a referendum and 41 percent say they would vote to leave the EU. That is without any real campaigning. And considering polls in Britain underestimated the strength of the “leave” vote, support among the French may also be understated by these surveys.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel invited the leaders of the eurozone’s two other major economies, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and French President François Hollande, as well as European Council President Donald Tusk to discuss the situation on Monday. Merkel said today that Germany has a deep and unique interest in maintain EU unity. Hollande characterized Brexit as a tough test, and said Europe must reinvent itself to be more responsive to the states that make up the union.
There is a lot at stake for each of these major EU countries, as there is for every country in the EU. But the problem is that the interests of each have already diverged and continue to diverge. Germany needs a market for its massive export-dependent economy. France has been seeking exceptions on EU budget deficit rules for years. Italy has been chafing against regulations from Brussels that, on the one hand, hamper Italy’s ability to respond to its volatile banking situation and yet, on the other hand, try to shift accountability away from the EU and toward Italian citizens. This is to say nothing of the interests of Eastern Europe, with its wariness of Russia, or southern Europe, with its extremely high levels of unemployment. Eurozone membership has not solved these issues – if anything it has exacerbated them.
There are calls from the major players to heed the warning of Brexit, to reimagine the EU and to make it more responsible to the needs of local European populations. But the EU has not been able to address the impact of the 2008 financial crisis. It has also failed to develop a coherent plan for the significant, but not overwhelming, number of migrants seeking new lives in European countries. Britain’s exit will make the spirit of these European leaders even more willing to fix the EU, but what is good for one patient isn’t necessarily good for the other.
Britain’s exit sends a message that countries need to rely not on Brussels, but on themselves. And once the financial markets recover from the shock (which they will) and Britain’s economy does not collapse (which it won’t), the other countries will be all the more willing to reconsider membership in the European Union. This will not happen overnight. A similar referendum in Italy requires a petition of at least 500,000 signatures and approval from the Supreme Court of Cassation. In France, the path to referendum is easier but still requires presidential approval. Besides Greenland, no member has ever left the EU – as the U.K. blazes this path it will be easier for others to follow.
For Euroskeptic populist parties throughout Europe, the British vote is a validation and an opportunity to build on momentum. Even in Germany, Alternative for Germany – a Euroskeptic, nationalist, anti-immigration party – is polling around 13 percent, as opposed to just 3 percent last year. The Five Star Movement in Italy acquitted itself well in recent mayoral elections and could pose a threat to Renzi in national elections. It will now be much more difficult for mainstream political parties in Europe to sideline anti-establishment parties. And the precedent that has been established of making these choices via a popular referendum instead of having politicians make decisions they believe to be in the national interest puts all the more pressure on the establishment.
In Eastern and Central Europe, Britain’s exit from the EU makes Hungarian and Polish Euroskeptics appear prescient and boosts their credibility. These countries simultaneously depend on EU funds and EU security guarantees while expressing frustration with Brussels’ ineffectiveness and double-standards. These countries will have to continue pursuing bilateral relationships with the U.S., the U.K. and others for economic and security reasons.
Throughout Europe, the various blocs of the European Union will also become more pronounced. Southern Europe may be less willing to adhere to European Central Bank directives, or EU and German demands to do more to stem the flow of refugees. Northern European and Scandinavian countries will watch what happens with Britain closely and reconsider what is best for them. Eastern Europe will see their funding from Brussels diminishing and become wary about their security. 
And nationalism, already making its impact felt across the Continent, will continue to rise. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already said Scotland will have to re-evaluate what is best for the Scottish people in the wake of the vote. The vote in the U.K. broke down along national lines – Scotland, Northern Ireland and London voted to remain in the EU, while the rest of England and Wales voted to leave. The arguments in favor of a United Kingdom outside the EU could be used to support an independent Scotland as well. Places like Scotland, Catalonia and even other areas in Europe the world hasn’t heard of might want a turn at national self-determination themselves.
The public reaction to Britain’s vote to exit the EU has been shock and consternation from EU advocates and jubilation from EU skeptics. Pro-EU politicians will continue to insist that this is a wake-up call for the EU, one that can be used as an impetus for change. Those against will try to capitalize on the boost in credibility and momentum from Britain’s unexpected decision and modify their own countries’ relationship with the EU. Beneath all of this noise, the geopolitical processes that brought us Brexit will continue to slowly reshape the Continent.