Preparing for divorce: After Brexit, lots of Bregret. Now what?
There’s been so much handwringing and outpouring of ‘Bregret’ since the morning after, so could there be another referendum now to give people a chance to change their minds?
A petition calling for a second referendum has attracted over 3.4 million signatures, by far the most popular ever on the web site of the British Parliament. The petition seeks the implementation of a rule that “if the Remain or Leave vote is less than 60% based a turnout less than 75%, there should be another referendum”. Leave won the June 23 referendum with 51.9% of the vote with a turnout of 72.2%. While any petition with over 1 million signatures earns the right to be debated in Parliament, no one seriously believes this debate will go beyond there-you-go shrugs and some headshaking. It was repeatedly clarified during the campaign that the vote would be final, and experts have pointed out that not only are Internet numbers inherently unreliable, these signatures is still only a fraction of the 17 million-plus that voted Leave. British media have been quoting top constitutional expert Prof Vernon Bogdanor as saying a second referendum was “highly unlikely”, and the EU would not “wish to bargain any further”.
Technically, the referendum result is not binding. Prime Minister David Cameron could, in theory, simply ignore it, and take the question to Parliament. Labour MP David Lammy has already called for a stop to the “madness” and to “bring this nightmare to an end through a vote in Parliament”. However, Cameron has, both before and after the referendum, said unequivocally that the will of the voters “must be respected”, and a volte face now looks politically unachievable.
So when does Britain actually leave?
There will be negotiations — on the terms of the break, and Britain’s future relationship with the EU — between the UK and the other 27 EU members. But these will start only after the British PM formally notifies the EU of the decision to go, and thereby triggers the so-called Article 50 of the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon, which forms the constitutional basis of the EU. The terms of Article 50 are vague, and there is no timeframe within which it must be triggered. On Saturday, most European leaders called for a quick Brexit; however, later in the day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that while “it should not take ages, I would not fight now for a short time frame”. David Cameron said on Friday that even though he would stay on till his successor is chosen, it would be the new PM who would trigger Article 50. In any case, as per The Cabinet Manual, “a guide to laws, conventions and rules on the operations of the (British) government”, he probably can’t leave without telling the Queen who should be asked to form the next government. And it might be a while before it is decided who that person will be: Cameron’s Conservative party has a 2-stage process to elect its leader, which, according to commentators, could take up to 3 months. All this put together suggests it could be October by the time Article 50 is triggered.
Once that happens, a 2 year-window opens for the UK to negotiate the new treaty. No one expects the talks to be fast or smooth, both Remain and Leave have repeatedly said that the divorce will take prolonged wrangling, and the 2-year timeframe can be extended, as long as a unanimous vote for an extension can be obtained. Any deal that the UK strikes with the EU must be backed by a “qualified majority” of at least 20 of the remaining 27 states, comprising at least 65% of the EU’s population. But if the 2-year window closes with neither a deal nor an extension, the UK will have to leave anyway – and in that case, World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules will come into force. That will mean the imposition of trade tariffs between Britain and the EU, which, commentators have warned, will hurt both sides.
What will the Brexit negotiations revolve around?
This will probably be the most complicated divorce proceeding the world has ever seen. A whole range of issues will be on the table, including, most prominently, trade and tariffs and travel and immigration. According to a post by political scientist Alan Renwick on the celebrated Constitution Unit blog of the Department of Political Science at University College London, the withdrawal process will involve three sets of negotiations that can either run in parallel, or the latter two can follow the first.
One, negotiation of the withdrawal itself, including questions such as the rights of UK citizens living in other EU states or EU citizens living in the UK. Two, a trade deal, and three, negotiation of the terms of its WTO membership. Because the British Parliament, a majority of whose members were pro-Remain, will have to ratify the deal, the negotiators can be expected to work on a package involving significant integration with the EU.-with Agency inputs