Let me make a prediction:
The United Kingdom — should it continue to exist — will not in the end withdraw from the European Union. The enormous legal, economic, bureaucratic, personal and political consequences engendered by such a move simply cannot be sustained based on the outcome of a single non-binding referendum that was decided by such a narrow vote, not over the long term. And while Thursday’s vote occurred at a specific moment in time, its implementation will require a full-hearted commitment to EU withdrawal over a period of several years that I do not think exists.
At the moment, of course, that is a distinctly minority viewpoint voiced by few if any in power. British Prime Minister David Cameron dismisses it out of hand, with a spokesman saying that a second Brexit referendum is “not remotely on the cards.” That’s what Cameron should say, and must say, so soon after a national referendum that he himself proposed. No leader, not even one who has announced his impending resignation, can so quickly thumb his nose at public opinion.
But here’s the reality:
1.) Under Article 50 of the European Union constitution, the withdrawal process doesn’t begin until a member state officially notifies the EU of its intent to withdraw. Despite the referendum outcome, Cameron has balked at issuing that formal notification, indicating that he will leave that responsibility to a replacement who won’t be selected until the ruling Conservative Party convenes in October. On the EU side, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also endorsed the idea of waiting at least until the fall, and if you can wait until the fall, then perhaps you can wait even longer to begin the process.
2.) Given the chaos within the Conservative Party, nobody knows who will replace Cameron, or what the new prime minister’s position on Brexit might be. The Labor Party is also undergoing a leadership crisis. Britain seems to be entering a period of great political instability, with very little likelihood of it producing a strong government that is committed to carrying out Brexit. In fact, a general election is a growing possibility before the year is out, and if the newly elected government campaigned on staying in the EU, then it would be easy to argue that the June referendum has been overruled.
3.) If and when British leaders do officially invoke Article 50, British and EU officials will begin to negotiate the unraveling of some 40 years of intertwined laws and regulations covering trade, immigration, labor, finance, consumer protection, environmental protection and other areas of the law. Then they must negotiate agreements to put all that back together again in a new arrangement. It will be incredibly complex. What happens to the 2 million British citizens now living and working in EU countries? What happens to the millions of EU citizens living and working in Britain? What about tariffs, and intellectual property laws, and foreign investment, and tax laws? As pointed out in a report drafted for the House of Lords prior to the Brexit vote, it typically takes somewhere between four to nine years for the EU to negotiate a trade agreement with another country, and the EU-Britain divorce agreement would be considerably more complex than a normal trade agreement.
4.) Under Article 50, the EU and an exiting member state have just two years to negotiate an exit agreement. However, with a unanimous vote of EU members, that two-year window can be renewed any number of times, meaning that the process can continue indefinitely. And under European law, Britain can legally reverse its decision to withdraw at any point in that negotiating process, right up to the moment at which that withdrawal is officially complete and ratified by both parties. That point is at best years away.
5.) Now that their bluff has been called, British advocates of Brexit are already acknowledging that many of their biggest promises were moonlight and ashes. Immigration is unlikely to be curtailed to any great degree, as Leave proponents had claimed. Hundreds of millions of pounds a week will not be diverted from the coffers of the EU into the National Health Service, as top Brexit supporters had promised. And many Leave supporters, confronted with the enormity of what they have done, are expressing misgivings that are likely to deepen over time.
6.) Brexit advocates pooh-poohed experts who warned that it would bring serious economic repercussions, but unfortunately those warnings appear to be valid. The British pound is at its lowest level since 1985 and British stocks are tanking, with British bank stocks being hit particularly hard. Goldman Sachs is predicting a recession in Britain next year, and Standard & Poors has downgraded British government debt by two notches, its largest downgrade in history, warning that additional downgrades are possible. “In our opinion, this outcome is a seminal event, and will lead to a less predictable, stable, and effective policy framework in the UK,” S&P warned. In addition, foreign investors are balking at additional investment in Britain and some are looking to pull out of existing commitments.
7.) Absent a written constitution, British law can be murky, but there’s a strong case being made in the UK that the British government cannot commit itself to EU withdrawal without the approval of the Scottish Parliament, and since Scottish voters overwhelming opposed Brexit, that approval is unlikely. In fact, Scottish elected officials have made it clear that if Britain carries through on its decision to withdraw, Scotland will in turn demand its own independence so it can rejoin the EU as an independent nation, on its own terms. In short, to the degree that British authorities avidly pursue withdrawal from the EU, they also avidly pursue the breakup of the 300-year-old United Kingdom.
8.) Brexit advocates also told voters that they would be able to negotiate a new deal with the EU, preserving all or most of the benefits of EU membership without most of the obligations and compromises that membership entails. EU leaders show no signs whatsoever that they are open to such an arrangement. “In is in. Out is out,” as the German finance minister argued before the vote. “At some point, the British will realize they have taken the wrong decision. And then we will accept them back one day, if that’s what they want.”
I don’t profess to be an expert in British or EU politics, but at some basic level, politics is politics and bureaucracies are bureaucracies. Traumatic changes on this scale can be carried out with the decisive support of the public and the strong, durable commitment of a government, but in this case neither exists. Instead we have a policy backed by a tiny majority of the electorate, opposed by three quarters of the British Parliament, to be implemented over a period of years by a likely succession of British governments, any one of which could end the process and could cite multiple good reasons for doing so.
In the end, I’m dubious that’s going to happen.