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Published July 13, 2016
Theresa May arrives at 10 Downing Street at an odd, supercharged moment when Britain is gripped by uncertainty.
The country is relatively prosperous and at peace, its streets free of trouble and its commerce strong. Yet British citizens have chosen to reset the country's compass, steering it away from the European Union with its finicky rules and regulations and its wide open borders, and sending it back in time to what is remembered as a prouder era when Britain stood alone, defiant.
No one suggests that the June 23 vote to leave the 28-nation EU means Britain is ready to conquer the world, once more, but the referendum result marks a decisive break with the recent past, establishing a "before" and "after" divide defined by May's surprisingly quick ascent into the prime ministerial residence.
The impact of the vote was immediate, the casualties many: David Cameron has resigned as prime minister, the value of the British currency has dropped sharply in relation to the dollar and the euro, and thousands of companies large and small are trying to determine if Britain will still be a viable global business center once its close ties to Europe are cut.
The governing Conservative Party has coalesced behind May's leadership bid, bringing clarity at the national level, but hesitation and unease remain in the air, in part because the decision to leave the EU will impact the lives of millions in ways that are completely impossible to define at the moment.
Technically, nothing has changed. Britain has not formally begun the departure process. But the emotional landscape has been altered and the atmosphere feels different for many.
May has declined to assure the estimated 3 million EU citizens living legally in Britain that they will be allowed to remain in the country once Britain is free of the EU's "free movement of people" requirements. That means several million people cannot effectively plan their futures in a country where they — and their progeny — may not be allowed to reside.
The French business school graduate who started her own boutique public relations firm? The expert piano tuner from the Czech Republic who's making a good living? The Polish workman earning fair wages at a tough job? The nurse doing overnight hospital shifts? The woman packing salads at the grocery store?
Can they stay? No one knows, least of all the workers themselves, who cannot be sure whether to put down roots, start families, build careers, or make plans to move back to their home countries rather than spend more time in a country that may soon kick them out.
The same uncertainty is felt at universities that have relied on a steady influx of students from EU countries to help balance the financial books, and at cultural institutions that have depended on EU funding to help pay for exhibits and performances.
It is palpable in Scotland, where political leaders say they are likely to seek another independence referendum that puts its future role in the United Kingdom in doubt. And it has gripped business owners trying to determine what shape the export market will take as the drama of a British exit, or Brexit, unfolds. Will there still be hassle-free trade with former EU partners, or will those relationships be forever sullied by Britain's unilateral step away from the bloc?
The answer depends on tough, clear-headed negotiations and a search for compromise. That will be May's task, and the task of her still unnamed "Brexit minister" as her government takes shape in the coming days.