The success of the referendum in Britain will not just inspire more countries to use referendums to leave the European Union, but also motivate ethnic and minority groups around the world to possibly demand a referendum to seek independence and statehood, thereby causing chaos in the states system that has existed since 1945. 

So quite apart from the social and economic consequences of the referendum for Britain and Europe, the idea of a referendum will have a global spill-over effect, encouraging extremist populism and Islamism and thereby potentially further fragmenting already vulnerable states and societies.

Brexit consequences: Remain voters fear for their future

As long as referendums preserved the status quo they did not damage the body politic of nation states.

Yet Britain has demonstrated that the status quo of economic and political unions and long-held ideas of nationhood can be broken up when governments come under populist public pressure to change political direction by using a referendum as its main political means to achieve it.

Long running tensions

Scotland is likely to hold a second referendum to see if it will become independent of Britain and stay in the EU.

Elsewhere in Europe, Spain is in particular danger.


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The Catalans are likely to pressure the Spanish state to speed up giving them independence, possibly through a second referendum. Separatists lost an earlier referendum. The Basques in the north west still have a strong left-wing nationalist movement.

As long as referendums preserved the status quo they did not damage the body politic of nation states.

 

Belgium, the base of the European Union, is itself vulnerable. It is home to two main linguistic groups, the Dutch-speaking Flemish community and the French-speaking Walloons.

There is long-running tension between them and a separatist movement among the Flemish community has emerged. It took 18 months after the June 2010 federal election to form a government in Brussels. Belgium's split communities now may see a referendum as a means to separate.

The whole of Europe has been infected with the British disease. Right-wing populists in France, the Netherlands and Denmark are already pushing for a British-style referendum that would take them out of the European Union.

''The British people have taught us a resounding lesson in democracy,'' said Marine Le Pen, leader of the French right-wing National Front. ''I think the UK has initiated a movement that will not stop,'' she added.

Deprived ethnic and religious groups

And what about further afield in Asia and Africa, where former European colonies were given statehood after World War II - often by forcing together competing ethnic groups, tribes and religious minorities to forge new countries that are still fragile. Will some of these groups now demand a referendum to split and fragment existing states?

British tourists toast the win of Brexit outside a cafe in Benidorm, Alicante, eastern Spain [EPA]

South Asia is riddled with deprived ethnic and religious groups who are seeking various forms of freedom.

Separatists in Pakistan's Balochistan province have been fighting a ten-year-long insurrection seeking independence, while Kashmiris in both India and Pakistan are demanding a separate state.

The Nagas in northeast India and other tribal groups are also seeking independence. Many of these groups have demanded a referendum to determine their future.

In recent years, with the help of Islamic extremism, the Middle East has seen the destruction of borders in Syria and Iraq and escalating sectarian conflicts.


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There are now multiple centres of power in the failed states of Yemen and Libya and vibrant Kurdish independence or autonomy-seeking movements in several states - Turkey, Iraq and Syria. The danger is that further fragmentation could be formalised by minority groups calling for a referendum.

Clearly the idea of a referendum is only feasible if there is a government willing to allow its people such political choices, just as Britain did.

Authoritarian or weak governments in the developing world will never allow such a freedom of choice or willingly let minorities opt out of their nation state.

However, that does not preclude the idea of a referendum becoming a political demand or a tool in the arsenal of militant nationalists, separatists and right-wing populists to force their government to hold one.

More dangerous still, separatist groups could start appealing to the United Nations or other international bodies to support their demand for a referendum on the grounds of human rights.

We are on the cusp of a dramatically changing, shifting world. British people have no idea what they have unleashed on the rest of the world when they voted to leave the European Union. We will all bear the consequences.

Ahmed Rashid is the author of five books on Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia. His latest book is Pakistan on the Brink.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy. 

Source: Al Jazeera