East Germans scale the Berlin Wall in 1989.Reuters

In 2005, Mark Leonard published a book called Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century. The moment was ripe for such an argument. The European Union had just embarked on the greatest expansion in its history, welcoming 10 new members, and headlines heralded the sprouting of “a European identity” and the emergence of a “United States of Europe.” Heck, Greece even admitted that it had fudged economic data in its zeal to join the European currency union.

In the book, Leonard took issue with the notion that China or India could soon eclipse America as a world power. “Those countries suffer from the same problems as the United States: they are large, nationalistic nation states in an era of globalisation,” he wrote. “The European Union is leading a revolutionary transformation of the nature of power that in just 50 years has transformed a continent from total war to perpetual peace. By building a network of power—that binds states together with a market, common institutions, and international law—rather than a hierarchical nation-state, it is increasingly writing the rules for the 21st Century.”

On Friday morning, shortly after Britain’s shock vote to leave the European Union, Leonard struck a starkly different tone. For the EU, Britain’s exit, or “Brexit,” risks “reinforcing a cycle of disintegration,” he wrote. “Member states like Poland and Hungary, as well as opposition parties like Marine Le Pen’s Front National [in France], could launch copy-cat moves. … If other crises—a euro [currency] crisis, a Schengen [passport-free movement] crisis, a Trump presidency—get layered on top of Brexit, there is a real danger of collapse.”

How, in just 10 years, did we go from the European Century to European Collapse? Leonard, the London-based director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, is one of the closest and most thoughtful observers of Britain’s complex relationship with Europe. On Friday, after a sleepless night of tracking the knife-edge vote, he spoke with me about what went wrong with the European project, what’s behind Britain’s exit, and what comes next.

An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation follows.


Uri Friedman: In 2005, you wrote a book called Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century in which you argued that the continent’s collective soft power could prove the model of the future. What went wrong?

Mark Leonard: After 1989, [with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War], an incredible period of history was launched with Europeans bang in the center of it. It gave rise to a sense that the euro was reshaping the world.

If you compare the map of Europe in 1989 to the map of Europe when I wrote my book in 2005, it’s unrecognizable. Lots of new states were created, countries that were in the Soviet bloc had become liberal democracies and joined the European Union. Around all of these different waves of countries that join the European Union, you have another wave of countries that seemed to be inspired by it—you have the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Rose Revolution in Georgia. There were people taking to the streets, banging at the door of the EU and asking to be let in. And then you also have, at a global level, a new set of institutions being shaped that embodied the kind of post-sovereigntist European way of working, like the World Trade Organization and the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court. The fourth way that I saw Europe changing the world was by setting off a regional domino effect. You had other regions coming together and modeling themselves off the European Union: the African Union, ASEAN, MERCOSUR. On every continent, there seemed to be an attempt to create a regional support club that was not identical to the EU, but was at least inspired by it.

Those things collectively led to a sense that Europe was remaking the world in its image and exporting its values. One of the troubling things about the world of 2016 is that most Europeans feel that the world around them is in a state of chaos and that it’s the world that is transforming them—[for example], through the Arab uprisings going wrong, which means that Europe’s neighbors are not importing democracy and European values, but exporting refugees and chaos. One of the central parts of my story was about how the EU seemed to be remaking Turkey—now it’s Turkey that dictates the terms of trade by threatening to send refugees into the EU. At a global level, a lot of the institutions that seemed to be becoming increasingly important have been gridlocked by geopolitical competition.

Therefore, the basic mindset of Europeans has changed. Instead of thinking about the EU as a universal project, which would change everyone else, they’re starting to think about the EU as a fragile, exceptional project that needs to be defended from others. These changes to the external environment have come at a time when, domestically, a lot of countries have been under a lot of economic pressure with the [European economic] crisis, even in countries like Britain that were very affected by the [2008] global financial crisis and introduced [government budget] austerity as a result.

One of the other consequences of 1989, of [EU] enlargement, was that you get these large flows of people. That is another way that people think that they are being shaped—that they’re becoming minorities in their own countries and there are people coming in and changing the nature of the country. That’s one of the slogans here: “I want my country back.”

Some of these [trends] are just cyclical, but when you make a decision like the decision that the British public took yesterday, it’s quite difficult to overturn. Your cycle can become a structural change quite easily, if it becomes enshrined by a referendum.

The other element I didn’t predict [in 2005] was the collapse of representative democracy, which is happening everywhere. We’re seeing all elites in all developed countries going through this crisis. In a lot of countries like the U.S., with [Donald] Trump, it’s kind of contained, whereas in the U.K., in the EU, because countries are interdependent, it can actually start to undermine the EU. And that’s one of the dangers now—that after a cycle of integration and of optimism, we’re in the midst of a cycle of disintegration and pessimism. These things can become self-reinforcing.

Friedman: What does the Brexit vote means for the future of the European Union? How much should we think of this as, “Britain was never integrated into the European currency union, it was always a bit standoffish with the EU, this was inevitable,” versus how much should we think that the European project itself is existentially threatened?

Leonard: The EU’s not going to disappear. But there are two dangers. One is of contagion—that this [vote] could set off a spiral of disintegration with other countries [taking] copycat [actions]. And because it comes on the back of big things that Europeans are dealing with—the rest of the euro crisis and the refugee crisis—you have a structure that’s already under some pressure.

The other [danger] is about the death of a certain idea of Europe, and that’s what my book was about. It was the idea that Europe could actually hope to have an effect on how the world was ordered. You’d have a European voice alongside other great powers. That’s more difficult to do if you don’t have a British component to the European project, because Britain is one of the countries that takes foreign policy seriously, that had a more global outlook, that had some sort of ambition to shape things. A Europe without Britain is poorer and smaller and maybe a bit less able to play that sort of role.

Friedman: How would you characterize this moment in the modern history of Europe?

Leonard: It’s a counterrevolutionary moment. My book essentially was a description of a revolution in how power and politics was organized. It was an expression of that revolutionary ambition—where the laws of international relations were being rewritten.

What’s happening now is a powerful countervailing force where people are saying, “Stop the world, I want to get off it. I want to return to previous certainties.” And their language is of independence rather than of interdependence. It’s about trying to row back these profound changes that have been unleashed by the European project since the end of the Cold War.

Friedman: You supported Britain remaining in the EU, right?

Leonard: Yeah.

Friedman: Are you British or European? How do you think of your own identity within the U.K. and Europe?

Leonard: I’m very European. My mom comes from a German Jewish family. She was born in hiding in France in 1944 and then moved back to Germany in 1950 with her sister and her mother, and her father stayed in France. My dad’s British, but his life was very marked by the European experience as well. He was evacuated as an 8-year-old—separated from his parents during the Blitz. His father fought in the First World War and was gassed in the trenches. His outlook is very shaped by European mores. I lived in Brussels for 12 years as a kid as well. I have a very strong European heritage, which was shaped by the big historical events of the 20th century.

But I also do feel incredibly comfortable in Britain. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the meaning of Britain and Britishness, and trying to understand this strange mix of being an island, but having a global worldview—links to the rest of the world and the silently revolutionary qualities of Britishness: the creativity, the hybridity, the mongrel nation that Britain has become. That’s one of the other things that was being contested in this referendum, I think.

Friedman: Given your family background, your past work, what does this vote mean to you personally? How did you feel when you woke up this morning?

Leonard: Well, I didn’t. I stayed up all night. It’s a real shock because the referendum showed how fundamentally Britain is divided. It was a very close referendum: 52 percent voted [to leave the EU], 48 percent voted [to remain]. People have talked about how it showed that there isn’t one country anymore: You’ve got Remainia and Leavia, the country of [slain “Remain” lawmaker] Jo Cox and [“Leave” leader] Nigel Farage. If you look at where I live in London, 80 percent of people voted to stay in. If you go to other neighborhoods on the south coast or in post-industrial towns in the north of England, you have the opposite result. It’s a clear generational division as well. Three-quarters of young people under the age of 25 voted to stay in; it was almost a mirror image for [those older than] 75. You’ve got a profound division between two different ways of thinking about the national story.

Friedman: What does this mean for the future of the United Kingdom? Northern Ireland will now share a border with an EU country, Ireland; Scotland, whose citizens largely wanted to remain in the EU, will likely stage a new independence referendum; Spain now wants to seize control of Gibraltar. Was this, in a way, a vote to dissolve Great Britain?

Leonard: I hope that wasn’t what was behind the Leave campaign, but there is a very real danger [of that occurring].

Friedman: What do you think tilted the balance in favor of Brexit? Some people say it was all about the economy. Some people say it was all about immigration. What do you think proved decisive?

Leonard: The issue that proved to be decisive was immigration, and the fact that sovereignty was given a form that was much less abstract—with this idea that when you’re in the European Union with freedom of movement, you can’t decide who gets to live in your country anymore.

One of the problems with immigration is though there’s an aggregate benefit [from immigration] to the economy and a huge amount of evidence of that—people who come pay much more in taxes than they receive in benefits—[the benefit is] not shared equally. There are losers as well as winners. If you have very large numbers of people coming into neighborhoods without tracking who’s going where, and without moving resources to local authorities to make sure they have enough money to create schools and hospitals, that does put pressure on public services. It puts pressure on house prices, and it can put pressure on wages in certain sectors. That’s what’s happened. It’s the left-behind voters who have risen up against the elites. They don’t trust anyone who they blame for having created these circumstances. In a way, there are very strong parallels with the rise of Trump in the U.S.

Friedman: If you had to identify the key proximate cause of the vote’s outcome, was it the 2008 financial crisis? Was it the current wave of migration to Europe? Was it the European debt crisis?

Leonard: I think it was a combination of different things. But I think, first of all, it was the enlargement of the European Union and the fact that other countries had not opened their borders up, which meant that there were very large numbers of people who came into the U.K. The U.K. was not prepared for it. Secondly, that was made worse with the [2008] financial crisis. You had austerity [policies] being brought in, public services being cut, and people were blaming immigration rather than the austerity measures taken by the government.

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