Well, the big day has come and gone, and the final results are in: Britain has voted to leave the European Union, with a narrow majority choosing "Leave" during Thursday's national referendum. It's a decision that's sent some early shockwaves through global financial markets and the international press alike, and it's got plenty of people wondering what happens next. After all, if you're a casual observer, you might not even know whether this has any historical precedent ― in other words, has an EU member state ever left before?
The answer, simply put, is yes, although there's little historical parallel to what just went down in Britain. First things first, it's necessary to know that the EU wasn't always what the European collaboration was called ― its predecessor organization was formed back in 1958, the European Economic Community, or EEC. The EEC would exist for 34 years following its establishment in the Treaty of Rome, and it wasn't until the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 that it was re-christened as the EU. In other words, it's relevant to look back into the decades, even though the name of this particular international union wasn't always the same as it is now.
So, is there any historical precedent? Not including what's happening in the United Kingdom right now (the actual process of Britain leaving the EU demands action from parliament, which is still uncertain), there have only been three other instances where a country or territory dropped out of the EU. And none of them were full-fledged member states like Britain ― in other words, we really are in uncharted waters here.
- Algeria left the EEC in 1962, in concert with its newfound, hard-fought independence from France.
- Greenland partially withdrew from the EEC in 1985, after being ushered into it 1972 by way of Denmark. Despite Greenland dropping out, Denmark remains a full-fledged member state.
- The Caribbean island of Saint-Barthélemy (better known as St. Barts to the global tourism community, which drives much of its economy) also once qualified as an EU "outermost region," or OMR, by virtue of being a French territory. But following its succession from Guadeloupe in 2007, it is now an OCT, or "overseas country or territory."
The upshot? Not only were none of those full departures by member states, but none of them were sparked by a majority referendum on the specific question of abandoning the EU, either. In other words, the EU has really never sustained a challenge to its cohesion and stability on quite this level, and as such it'll be hugely interesting how things ultimately shake out, but also fraught with risk and uncertainty. That's being reflected by some of the stunned reactions the outcome has brought out across social media, as well as reports of some "Leave" supporters who didn't actually think it could happen, too.
The Brexit vote has already set off more than its fair share of economic anxieties too, make no mistake ― in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, the British pound sunk to its lowest value in decades, no doubt a painful blow to the voters.