How does Britain Leave the EU and Why It Won't Happen
With the catastrophic events unfolding following the 51.9% vote for the UK to leave the EU at last week’s Referendum, many, including leaders in the EU, are confused on what happens next. Most articles and blogs are talking about the backlash of the Referendum, by discussing the financial markets, the division and infighting within different parties, what the EU thinks and generally reacting to the shock of the vote. Few have actually clearly explained what needs to happen for the UK to effectively become a country outside of the EU. From what has been published thus far there are a few clues that can be pieced together.
First, although David Cameron had said previously that he would invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty if the result was to leave the EU, during his resignation speech following last Thursday’s vote, he said that this would be up to the next Prime Minister. Did he change his mind? As a supporter for the Remain campaign, he ethically should not be negotiating the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, as this should be left to a leader who believes in this cause. Cameron, his Government and the current Parliament were elected on specific mandates that they promoted during the last General Election. As circumstances have changed, the current Parliament and Government do not have the mandate of the people to make decisions based on the results of the EU Referendum. Thus, rightfully so, Cameron has called for a General Election sometime in October. What does this mean? Between now and the date of the election, nothing can happen towards the UK leaving the EU, no matter who calls for it within the UK or outside of it. During these months, the UK will remain part of the EU and its UK MPs will continue to serve in the EU Parliament as they were elected in 2014 for a five-year term.
There is one area of legal debate that is beginning to arise regarding the initiation of Article 50. It was agreed during the signing of the Bill that created this Referendum that the Government would act based on the outcome of the Referendum. Does this mean that Cameron could have invoked Article 50 if he wanted to or could he legally have been challenged by Parliament? To avoid the question, Cameron has deferred it to whomever is elected following the next General Election and, as such, the issue remains highly debated. Nonetheless, given the division of the country, it is likely that this will be brought to a vote in Parliament in the new Government.
The current Government has made it clear that there will not be a second Referendum on this issue and that petitions for such a move will not be considered. At the time of this article, an online petition calling for a second referendum has reached 3.5 million signatures. It has been said that many Leavers truly did not understand what they were voting for, given that the number one search on Google.co.uk following the Referendum was “What is the EU?” In addition, many of the promises made by the Leave campaign have unravelled following the vote; for example, immigration cannot be controlled if Britain is to stay in the single market. Thus, people are rethinking their vote and many are shocked by its current aftermath. Even though parties are squabbling on what to do next, the decision on whether a second referendum will take place may become a key aspect of the upcoming General Election. A second referendum could therefore take place but this would not be before the next General Election. If this second referendum were to be more decisive than the first, then the division might be resolved. However, if there is no second referendum or if it is as divided as the first, it will be up to the next Government to decide on the next course of action.
Second, for the next four months, all the parties need to get their messages in order and begin campaigning to promote not only their position on the EU but everything else they see for the UK. Considering the current division within the Labour and the Conservative parties, the only ones that have a clear and unified position are the Liberal Democrats (on remaining in the EU) and UKIP (on leaving it). If an EU Leave party is elected into Government, either through a coalition or independently, only then will it be able to write a bill for the UK to leave the EU that could be voted on in Parliament. Not only will it take time to put together a Cabinet and write the bill but it is likely to be fought against and revised a number of times. Considering the close division of the country on this issue, it seems unlikely that an EU Leave party would have a majority in the Parliament to act decisively on this issue. It is far more likely that this will stall dramatically, creating more uncertainly in the markets and for the EU.
Third, if no second decisive referendum is called and an EU Leave Government successfully passes a bill to for the UK to leave the EU, it is then and only then, that the UK will invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which is the clause allowing members to leave the EU. It has been said this is the only legal way for the UK to exit the EU. Between now and then, it is up to the EU to figure out the details of this process, as no such regulations have been written and Article 50 has never been invoked before. The UK Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are to take part in this discussion over the coming months. However, when Article 50 is triggered, the UK MEPs will not partake in the discussions on the terms of the departure, as this will be bilateral between the remaining portion of the EU and the UK Government. The UK MEPs will continue to execute their duties on other matters likely until the 2019 EU Parliamentary elections and maybe even afterwards if negotiations take longer. It is said that the process dictated under Article 50 takes two years. However this is an arbitrary number, and in reality this is likely to be approached on a case by case basis. In order to stabilise the reliability of the EU, the EU Parliament and Council may choose the fastest Brexit option possible, but they cannot do so until the UK requests to leave.
In regards to Scotland, there is no reason for a second Scottish Independence Referendum until Article 50 is triggered, thus making the UK Government’s intention official. As Scottish MPs and the recent EU Referendum made it clear that Scotland wishes to remain part of the EU, the Scottish National Party will likely campaign on this topic at the General Election. If Article 50 is invoked, then a second Scottish Referendum date is likely to be set very soon after. Of course, consultations will be made with the UK and EU Parliaments and bodies beforehand; however, it is unlikely that a reaction will commence until it is reactive to a UK move to leave.
Nevertheless, the UK Parliament may want to deal with one crisis at a time and/or may not be successful in getting a Leave bill through Parliament as Scotland is strongly for Remain. The rest of the UK may need a Parliament without the 59 Scottish representatives to get such a bill passed. This may mean another General Election after the Scottish seats become vacant or voting without their representatives, which may not be legal without another election anyway. On the other hand, if the bill to request Article 50 is passed through Government and this Scottish Referendum is successful, Scotland would need to begin divorce proceedings with the rest of the UK while the UK is negotiating its withdrawal from the EU. This all sounds very complicated and messy. Once independent, which may take a long time to sort out as discussed during the previous Scottish Referendum, an independent Scotland would need to apply for membership to the EU. These negotiations would take a few years to be completed.
In addition, there have also been rumours of Northern Ireland Republicans taking the opportunity to seize the moment to break away from the UK, as 55.8% of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. Though there are many differences in their situation, the independence process would be similar to the one outlined above for Scotland. Northern Ireland may have to wait its turn, although it can be said that the same situation as Scotland applies in terms of votes in the Parliament. Indeed, the 18 MPs elected in the next General Election from Northern Ireland are likely to be pro EU and thus will be able to assist in blocking a Leave bill through the UK Parliament.
By not fulfilling his pledge to invoke Article 50, David Cameron has walked away, in part, with his reputation intact, and has placed this Gordian knot in the hands of the leaders of the Leave campaign. If Wales/England are truly set on leaving the EU, they may have to sort out a number of things at home beforehand. First, parties will need to have a clear message on where things are going, which is currently not the case. Second, the UK may have to deal with a great deal of infighting leading up to the next General Election and likely afterwards as well. Third, if Leave the EU is still leading discussions, then the Government may have to deal with a Scottish divorce first and maybe one from Northern Ireland soon afterwards or at the same time. Finally, once all the Remain states of the UK have left, presuming that London does not push to leave as well (they too had 59.9% in favour of Remain), the Wales/England part that remains can finally attempt to push a bill through Parliament to get Article 50 passed and begin negotiations with the EU. All the while, the instability and uncertainly of the fate of the UK destroys its financial and international credibility.
It seems rather unlikely that both the public, Parliament and new Government would opt for such a scenario. Forgetting the financial considerations of the Brexit (before, during and after divorce), no one really wants to see the UK completely ripped apart by infighting. Staying in the EU and slowly negotiating its way out is far more likely and realistic than a very painful Article 50 divorce.