No other EU member has ever quit the union so what happens now is largely a matter of conjecture – there is no precedent. But there is a framework of sorts. To leave the EU, Britain will have to trigger an exit clause – Article 50 of the 1987 Lisbon Treaty. The joke among Brussels insiders is that the clause was “designed never to be used”: it has gaps and is unclear in places. But once that button is hit, the clock starts ticking. Britain will have two years to negotiate the terms of its departure from the EU and agree new trading arrangements with scores of other countries whose markets we currently have access to via the union, including the US, China and India.
Gung-ho factions in the Brexit camp tended to gloss over the complexity of this operation during the campaign. But the deadline looks tight, to say the least – particularly considering the snail’s pace at which trade talks usually progress. Negotiations on the EU’s new trade deal with Canada began in 2009, yet it still hasn’t been ratified. And that was just one deal.
To fulfil the terms of Lisbon, Britain will have to complete the process in double-quick time. A tall order, says Stephen Weatherill, professor of European law at Oxford University.
“People talk about the EU as if it were a monolith,” he told the Financial Times in February.
“In fact, the UK will be negotiating with the commission, with 27 member states, with the European parliament, national parliaments, with their electorates. There are a lot of veto players here. They’ll be herding cats to get these actors to agree.”
Under the circumstances, maybe it would be easier just to forget about Article 50 – or, at any rate, kick it down the road. That, after all, is how business in Europe is done; there’s a long and dishonourable history of it. Consider how many times Greece avoided Acropolis Now because a loophole was found to delay a debt deadline.
Some of the more serious thinkers in Vote Leave argued that a Lisbon fudge is certainly the best way to secure a smooth Brexit – including Britain’s senior justice minister, the Lord Chancellor, Michael Gove. His plan was simple: don’t hit the button! Or at least, not till you’re ready to. Much better to have “preliminary, informal conversations” with the rest of the EU “to explore how best to proceed” first.
“The process of change is in our hands,” he said. “It would not be in any nation’s interest artificially to accelerate the process, and no responsible government would hit the start button.”
Dominic Cummings, a former advisor to Gove and Vote Leave strategist, put it more brutally. Invoking Article 50, he said,
would be like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger... No one in their right mind would begin a legally defined-two year maximum period to conduct negotiations before they actually knew, roughly speaking, what this process was going to yield.
Britain, in other words, will negotiate to negotiate: for however long it takes to extract favourable terms. Even though Boris Johnson has rejected the idea, many in Vote Leave still think an Out vote could be used as a bargaining chip to negotiate a better settlement for Britain, which could then be decided upon by the country in a second referendum.
The more hardline Leave.eu faction of the Out camp hates this idea of a phony Brexit, viewing it as a sell-out and a betrayal of the cause. “Article 50 stipulates we must leave within two years. True Brexiteers might see this as a guarantee of freedom,” writes Liam Deacon on the libertarian website, Breitbart. Ignoring the treaty’s terms is merely an attempt by “soft Eurosceptics” to “get undecided voters on side”.
Instead of immediately embracing our newfound sovereignty and ability to build international relationships, this camp appears to want to put everything on ice and find a middle path.
Any post-Brexit British Government can expect trouble at home if it goes ahead with this plan. The far more important question is whether our spurned former EU partners will play along. Leaving the EU might be Britain’s choice, but that doesn’t mean we can dictate the exit terms.
It seems rather odd that “eurosceptics, of all people, should rest their case on the friendship and fair-mindedness of other EU governments”, says Clive Crook on Bloomberg. We probably could “agree a friendly divorce” that would preserve most of the union’s mutual single-market benefits but allow Britain to step aside from the political project, if other members want it. But what are the chances of that?
Eroding national sovereignty is one of the EU’s declared purposes – its manifest destiny, if you will. Europe’s other governments won’t help Britain prove the viability of... less political integration. The split wouldn’t be friendly, and Europe is in a position to make Britain pay.
The question of what the UK is worth to Europe in terms of trade has been hotly debated. But whatever the exact balance of power, Brexiters argued that it wouldn’t be in the EU’s interest to make life difficult for the UK to access the single market.
“They’re right about where Europe’s economic interests would lie,” says Crook.
But that isn’t the point. Some EU governments would be happy to harm themselves slightly to hurt Britain a lot – you know, pour encourager les autres... The UK has a lot to lose if the EU decided to be unaccommodating, and I’m betting the EU would.
Striking a deal may well be like “arranging a divorce on advantageous terms with an embittered spouse”. And it could be a long, drawn out affair. Senior EU and British officials reckon total divorce could take a decade to achieve.
“Ask any divorced couple whether their relationship would have been different had they never married,” says Anatole Kaletsky, writing in Prospect. “Actually, don’t bother, the answer is obvious.” That’s why it’s bonkers to assume that after voting Out we can blithely “produce a relationship similar to, but better than, the EU’s deals with Switzerland and Norway”.
There is a world of difference between politely declining a marriage proposal, as Norway and Switzerland have done repeatedly since the 1970s, and acrimoniously breaking up a prosperous, if difficult, relationship that has lasted for 40 years.
Senior EU politicians may bluster, but it’s just as likely that Brussels will be forced into a more accommodating relationship with Britain, post-Brexit – to prevent an economic shock hastening what some see as the inevitable collapse of an unsustainable construct.
“Populist movements whose leaders believe they will benefit from Brexit are on the rise across Europe,” observed Natalie Nougayrade in The Guardian. “Fragmentation is spreading everywhere.” And there’s “a whiff of fatalism in the air, or at least a careless passivity [that] makes the situation especially dangerous... in this age of extremes... moderate voices are fast drowned out by radical voices.”
To learn more about what will happen next, start by reading about why the UK made the decision to leave. It’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest, political decisions we’ve ever made. In recent months hundreds of thousands of words have been written on the subject, as Britain’s politicians and columnists battled it out. It’s a debate which has divided not just Westminster but local communities and even families. Jane Lewis, the City editor of The Week, looks at the arguments made by both sides and weighs up the evidence in this short, comprehensive and authoritative guide.