Commentary: UK drifts towards unending Brexit nightmare

It is, I’m afraid, not over yet. Not even close. This weekend, Britain barely looked like it had a government. Or an opposition. Certainly not a strategy.

A light shines outside Number 10 Downing Street, as votes are counted for the EU referendum, in London, Britain June 24, 2016. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Over the last few days, many – if not most – of Britain’s leading political figures appeared to be in hiding. They included most of those deemed possible successors to Prime Minister David Cameron or equally embattled opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. A handful have since reappeared, but their statements have inspired little confidence.

Last week, in the aftermath of the close but still decisive verdict, it looked plausible that Britain might act swiftly on the result. That now looks much less likely. It is, bizarrely, no longer clear if or even when it might trigger the Lisbon Treaty’s Article 50 to leave the EU.

This will all be resolved eventually – and probably in a suitably sensible way. In the short term, though, it’s going to be messy and uncertain.

British voters are the first to outright reject EU membership in a referendum. Ireland and Denmark also initially voted against elements of major EU treaties, only to ultimately reverse that decision in a second ballot. A popular vote in Greece to reject the terms of its international bailout last year was simply ignored. This, however, looks different – if only because of the much broader groundswell of discontent on a host of issues across the continent.

A lot is Cameron’s fault. He pledged repeatedly that if Britain voted out, he would immediately trigger Article 50, but he has now gone back on that promise, leaving whoever follows him to work out what to do next.

The irony is that there are a number of potential immediate paths forward – but none of them look likely to be taken. And the longer the economic certainty, the worse the economic and political pain may be.

The vote was narrow. If European leaders could come up with even a cosmetic offer of further concessions, particularly a renegotiation on open borders and access to benefits, a second referendum might yet see Britain agreeing to stay.

That’s still not impossible. After last year’s refugee crisis, many Europeans countries see the need for some kind of reform. If German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, took the lead by arranging a major summit to hammer out the issue in six months time it wouldn’t be unreasonable for Britain to hold fire on Article 50 and then have a second referendum afterwards.

The results of that would have to be binding and implemented fast.

For now, most European leaders are pushing for a rapid exit for Britain so they can get on with their other priorities. That’s not unreasonable, although Merkel was rather more nuanced in her weekend comments, saying there was no need to be “nasty” or overly hasty.

Even if Britain doesn’t activate Article 50 immediately – or at all – it is already going to find itself increasingly frozen out of key European decision-making and meetings. It may well want to remain part of the European Economic Area – the larger free-trade and movement bloc that also includes non-EU members Norway and Switzerland – but that also is not a foregone conclusion.

Europe has plenty of its own problems, not least the ongoing troubles in the euro zone, and would like to move on. Under the Lisbon Treaty, however, it’s difficult for Europe to force the UK out unilaterally. The British prime minister has to trigger it before EU nations can have the final say on whether Britain can stay.

For now, the assumption remains that the most likely replacement for Cameron is pro-“leave” former London mayor Boris Johnson, a charismatic but controversial figure.

In a newspaper column on Sunday night, Johnson attempted to be reassuring. Little would change, he said – free trade and most of the other benefits of EU membership would continue. All that would happen was that Britain would begin to extricate itself from EU regulations and bureaucracy.

The problem, as both Johnson and most British voters know, is that there is no real path within EU systems to that outcome. Nor is it really what “leave” voters wanted – although, of course, much of what they were promised was always dubious.

Through ducking out on Article 50, Cameron has handed his longtime rival a clearly poisoned chalice. Johnson already risks being blamed for the referendum outcome by those who resent it. By leaving him to activate the EU exit process – likely to usher in another round of the market falls that accompanied the “leave” result – he is putting Johnson in an almost impossible position.

Alternatively, the Conservatives could choose a leader from the more eurosceptic edge of the “remain” campaign. Home Secretary Theresa May is increasingly touted as the obvious choice. (Chancellor George Osborne had been seen as Cameron’s likely successor, but he was tied perhaps too closely to the “remain” campaign. He also failed to appear in public until this morning, and his statement then was not seen as reassuring as he had hoped.)

A pro-remain Conservative leader like May would face the same nightmare. She could trigger Article 50 immediately on the ground that there is no choice but to follow the clear democratic choice of the British people. The longer that process is delayed, the easier it becomes to claim that the electorate might have changed its minds. Which risks restarting the whole process all over again.

Cameron’s Conservative government won reelection barely a year ago because many voters saw it as a safe economic pair of hands. That reputation for competence is now gone.

For the moment, the only truly credible political bloc and leader in the game remains Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish nationalists. They want to keep Scotland – and perhaps Britain – in the EU. That could see Scotland attempting to block the rest of the UK from issuing its Article 50 declaration – or it could mean a repeat of the 2014 independence referendum.

The main opposition Labour Party, meanwhile, faces its own crisis. It had assumed, like the rest of the country, that it would not face a general election until 2020. Now, it is waking up to the prospect of a more imminent vote. A new Conservative leader might well seek a new electoral mandate – or the government could collapse outright.

That helps explain the current highly visible plotting against Corbyn, a genial leftist popular amongst grassroots supporters, but whose national poll numbers are terrible.

If anything, the referendum result is a greater challenge to Labour than the Tories. Most of its members of Parliament – along with voters in London and a handful of other metropolitan cities – are among the most committed to the EU. To win an election, however, it also needs its traditional industrial heartland further north, now heavily pro-“leave”.

In both local and national elections, Labour is also menaced by UKIP, the UK Independence Party that helped deliver the win for Brexit. If Britain does leave the EU, UKIP might struggle to justify its existence. But as long as this crisis teeters on, it remains a potent force in disaffected swathes of the country.

If Article 50 has been triggered by the next election, the Labour Party can just accept that and move on. But that might not happen.

Labour could campaign to keep Britain in the European Union if it wins the election without a further referendum. Or it could pledge an immediate second binding referendum, perhaps without taking a strong position on either side.

Some of the pro-“leave” supporters have spent the days since the vote behaving disgracefully, with what appears to be racially motivated attacks and slander against migrants reported to be rising sharply. That doesn’t mean that the honestly-held views of the 52 percent who wanted “leave”, however, cannot simply be ignored.

About the Author

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank in London, New York and Washington. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he has been an officer in the British Army Reserve. Follow Peter Apps on Twitter @pete_apps

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.