So, we’re out. For those who dream of a federal Europe, those want to block up the Channel Tunnel and everyone else in between, it’s happened. In probably the biggest political event that will happen in our lifetimes, the British public – by a slim majority – voted to leave the European Union. I’m sure that many European leaders will tell us not to let the door hit us on the way out, but the fact is we haven’t even opened the door yet.
Brexit through the gift shop
How are we going to leave? What will our future relationship be like? Will we still be able to enjoy visa-free, cheap-as-chips holidays to the continent?
No country has ever left the club. Greenland pulled out in 1987, but as it’s in a political union in Denmark, Greenlanders still have EU citizenship. The European Union actually enacted legislation for this very purpose way back in 2009: Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. That’s right: we have to jump through the mother of all EU regulations before we can be “free” of them.
The provisions for a member leaving are simple on paper. The country gives formal notification that it is bowing out, then two years of negotiations will begin. During this period, the UK will battle it out with the EU on everything – access to the single market, trade tariffs, immigration, previous commitments, funding, and almost everything else one can think of. The key point is that the EU can urge the UK to start these negotiations – but only the UK can start them. So, until that happens, we’re in limbo and still inside the EU.
Will we be like Norway, Switzerland, or just like Britain?
Nobody seems to have a clue at this stage. The most ardent Brexiteers want us to begin bargaining as soon as possible. Some want us to have a Norway-style deal, giving British businesses access to the market, with some restrictions on free movement. Europe says you can’t do this without free immigration. Switzerland has lots of complex deals with the EU, but again, they include free movement of people, so that probably won’t be acceptable for people who voted out solely on immigration.
Another option is deal tailor-made for the UK. Limiting freedom of movement would almost certainly deny full access to 500 million customers and investment that British businesses currently enjoy. It would definitely mean more hassle for students studying in Europe (and vice versa), although tourists will probably have a visa-free regime that would allow them to stay in Europe for up to three months.
When will we know?
I think both sides of the debate should accept that in this act of direct democracy, the British people have made a choice on what direction the country goes in. However, I also think we should all concur that almost everyone in Westminster – on both sides – has made a complete cock-up of this. Nobody has a concrete plan – it seems like the Leave leaders didn’t really expect to win, and the remainers were not even allowed to formulate strategies. We’ve no prime minister, and the leader of the opposition could be gone very, very soon.
Angela Merkel, long-time master of understatement and German Chancellor, said there was no hurry to start negotiations, but that they can’t be dragged out forever. France want us gone as soon as possible, which shouldn’t come as too much of a shock; they resisted us joining in the first place.
It’s looking like we are heading for new leadership in both the Conservative and Labour parties. Both sides will likely formulate options for our departure from the EU. Then, we might have an early general election based almost entirely on each sides’ proposals.
This is going to take a while, though, and it’s unlike we’ll be fully out of the European Union within the next five years. Any Brexiteer who thought we’d wake up on Friday and be done with it is wrong, as is any Remainer who worried we’d be cut off from day one.