Britain has voted for Brexit – what happens now?

‘Britain now enters a kind of “phoney Brexit” period. The Brexit vote may have created a political imperative to exit the EU – but legally speaking the vote is advisory only’

A cascade of agreements, will follow the  Brexit notification. Above, Nigel Farage, Prime Minister David Cameron and Boris Johnson.

A cascade of agreements, will follow the Brexit notification. Above, Nigel Farage, Prime Minister David Cameron and Boris Johnson.

 

Britain has voted for Brexit. What happens now?

Economically, lots – expect a plummeting pound, a drop in investor confidence and an economic reverse (not only for Britain, but for neighbouring states like Ireland for the EU and indeed the world economy).

Politically, lots too – David Cameron has already announced he will resign as prime minister and there will be very serious difficulties for a wounded EU beast.

Legally speaking? Ironically, not a lot happens . . .yet. Britain now enters a kind of “phoney Brexit” period. The Brexit vote may have created a political imperative to exit the EU – but legally speaking the vote is advisory only.

The law governing Brexit is found in Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, a provision adopted by Member States in 2009 to govern Brexit-like scenarios. (Suggestions made by Brexit campaigners of short-circuiting Article 50 by adopting a swathe of measures violating EU law won’t see the light of day – doing that would pointlessly violate EU and international law, alienate the UK’s future negotiating partners and jeopardise the UK’s future relationship with the EU).

Article 50 requires the UK to trigger the exit process by notifying its intention to withdraw. The effect is like pressing the switch on a stopwatch: time starts running, expiring in two years (unless every state involved agrees to extend it further). And after that two years (or else on the date of entry into force of a negotiated exit agreement, if any is reached) the UK is out.

In fact, not one, but rather a cascade of agreements, will follow this Brexit notification:

(a) the Article 50 exit agreement;

(b) a separate treaty governing the UK’s future relationship with the EU – which could take many years to negotiate (and which, if it goes beyond trade, will require ratification by every single EU member state);

(c) trade agreements between the UK and up to 134 other World Trade Organisation members; and

(d) a tidying-up treaty between all the remaining EU states – .excising references to the UK from the EU Treaties.

The initial main focus, however, will clearly be the Article 50 Brexit agreement. How will this work? The European Commission will likely do the negotiating with the UK – but under the watchful eye of very interested member states, who get to vote on the deal by (weighted) majority (and must all ratify it if it strays beyond trade matters). The European Parliament has a veto, making it an important player too. Article 50 negotiations will thus have a lot of players with powerful voices – and many not necessarily inclined to give the UK a very favourable deal lest “exiters” in their own countries get any ideas.

Could the UK delay giving Article 50 notification, or even avoid it altogether? Answer: legally, yes but other EU states will probably refuse to negotiate until they get the notification. Also in terms of domestic politics, since referendum votes demand respect, it will be difficult to avoid providing the notification.

Can the UK withdraw Article 50 notification (for instance if it doesn’t like the way negotiations are going)? This is unclear. The treaty certainly doesn’t prohibit this in so many words. Political misgivings would abound – but might possibly be met by having a second referendum to reject any Article 50 deal. Ireland, after all, had referendum second thoughts on the Lisbon and Nice Treaties, Denmark had them on the Maastricht Treaty and France and the Netherlands agreed to a Lisbon Treaty deal very similar to the 1994 Constitutional Treaty earlier rejected by both states in referendum.

What will the UK get out of Article 50 negotiations? That depends on how (and who) conducts the negotiations for the UK, and what the other states are prepared to offer it. Even assuming they prove pleasantly amenable, the UK will be left with awkward choices. Does it want continued access to the single market with its 500 million consumers? If so, it is may have to make Norway-like concessions – including continued EU migration and cash payments for the privilege. Does it want to block out EU migrants? Then it may well have to say goodbye to single European market access. And no matter what the UK chooses, it will unavoidably find itself outside the corridors of power in the EU for the first time in over forty years.

Article 50 does envisage the possibility of UK re-entry to the EU one day – but subject to a unanimous vote of member states – which pretty much guarantees that this will only ever happen by the UK accepting the euro, Schengen participation and no rebate.

Welcome to the brave new world of Brexitland.

Prof Gavin Barrett is Jean Monnet Professor of European Constitutional and Economic Law and Associate Professor, Head of Research and Innovation, Sutherland School of Law, University College Dublin.

An edited version of this article appears in The Conversation

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