It’s a move that many feared but few truly believed would happen – on 23rd June, the UK voted by 51.9% in favour of leaving the EU.
As the UK and the remaining EU Member States try to get their heads around the result, European leaders have sought to reassure EU citizens that Brexit will not have a negative effect on the EU’s future by issuing a – fairly rare – joint statement from all four EU presidents (Parliament, Commission, European Council and Council of the EU):
“This is an unprecedented situation but we are united in our response. We will stand strong and uphold the EU’s core values of promoting peace and the well-being of its peoples. The Union of 27 Member States will continue. The Union is the framework of our common political future. We are bound together by history, geography and common interests and will develop our cooperation on this basis. Together we will address our common challenges to generate growth, increase prosperity and ensure a safe and secure environment for our citizens.”
In spite of their reassurance, the result of the referendum does not appear to have calmed the debate surrounding EU membership. Indeed, if anything, it has complicated things further. While the message from the EU has essentially been “keep calm and carry on,” the UK has seen significant protests, calls for a new referendum and conflicts between its member countries. The question of Scottish independence is back on the table and some of the grandest promises from the leave campaign have now been revealed as spurious.
EU Member States are calling for a swift enactment of the now infamous article 50 – the mechanism for leaving the EU – in order to quickly define the new European reality. Nevertheless, it just doesn’t seem possible at this stage. David Cameron’s virtually instantaneous resignation as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s withdrawal from the Conservative leadership race, frustration with the Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s perceived lack of support for the stay campaign… at a critical juncture, the UK is facing an incredibly serious leadership dearth.
David Cameron has made it clear that he will leave the job of activating Brexit to his successor but until the UK has a functioning government in place and a Prime Minister capable of uniting a very divided country, it may prove difficult just to set the wheels in motion. Moreover, it is not even clear how the UK should do this – while some have suggested that it is sufficient for the Prime Minister to notify EU leaders, others believe that the UK parliament’s approval must be obtained before any action can be taken.
EU leaders are insisting that any negotiations prior to triggering article 50 are completely off the table. At the same time, rumours abound of certain Member States’ desires to make an example of the UK in the hopes of dissuading similar moves from other Eurosceptic countries. Such talk is of course unlikely to convince UK leaders to rush into anything they may regret or which could lead to further citizen demonstrations.
The coming months will be crucial in defining the limits of the UK-EU27 relationship. The choice of a new Prime Minister – to be appointed by internal voting in the ruling Conservative party – will of course be key in sending a message to European negotiators as to the UK’s hopes and expectations for its withdrawal. Questions on matters as divisive as immigration and free movement, trade and security will moreover undoubtedly then lead to some heated debates, as they did in the build-up to the referendum. While European and UK leaders are currently trying to maintain an aura of calm, if the UK doesn’t enact article 50 within a “reasonable” delay, pressure from EU actors is likely to increase. The question now is whether UK leaders will be capable of entering into negotiations with a willingness to compromise in the hopes of achieving a sustainable and realistic exit agreement.