By: Leila Nadya Sadat

As someone who has taught European Union law for years, it seems to me that much of the discussion about whether the United Kingdom should leave or remain in the EU, also known as “Brexit,” has missed the point. There are many economic arguments for and against Brexit. There are many emotional attachments to national sovereignty and national pride that have been sincerely expressed by the leave campaign as well. But the reason Brexit is so shocking is that economics were not the real reason that the EU was created. It was to prevent war.

After three conflagrations in less than 100 years–1870, 1914 and 1939–brilliant men and women came up with the idea that if they interwove their economies deeply enough, the countries of Europe would stop their bloody and vicious slaughter of each other. Recall that the communities started with coal, steel and atomic energy–the war industries–then moved to economic integration. Once the original six stopped fighting each other and the economic benefits of peace became apparent, other states wanted in, which is why there are now 28 members.Map

It has been complex intertwining the economies of all these different sovereign nations, and sometimes EU efforts have seemed clumsy or frustrating. But the goal was a new way of thinking about being European–of being human–that could stop the bloody conflicts of the past. It is not surprising then that we see far right parties supporting Brexit; and that young people–who have embraced this new European identity more easily–are so distraught over the result. And for those of us helplessly watching from the sidelines, who hoped Europe could teach the world how to contain the beast of nationalism so as to bring Europe’s experience with peace to a global stage where war is still too often touted as an option, well, Brexit is profoundly painful.