(First published by the Parliament Magazine on 24 june 2016)
In retrospect it is remarkable that the rest of the EU put up with British exceptionalism for so long. Ever since Margaret Thatcher demanded “her money back” in 1980 the EU has gone to extraordinary lengths to accommodate the UK’s repeated demands to be treated differently. The final instalment came with the ‘reform deal’ negotiated by David Cameron ahead of this year’s referendum. The other 27 member states didn’t like it, but they were prepared to go to great lengths to keep the UK on board, some valuing its stance on a range of policy issues and others fearing the precedent set by a country leaving the Union.
In the final days of the campaign there were moving outpourings of continental popular support for the UK remaining in the EU – from newspaper front pages covered in Union Jacks to postcards telling the Brits “we would miss you”. But British voters either didn’t notice or didn’t care. Fed a steady diet of lies and prejudice by an overwhelmingly eurosceptic press for the best part of 40 years, they decided that raising the drawbridge – or, to use a more apt metaphor, flooding the Channel Tunnel – would be the best way to insulate themselves from the negative effects of the economic and political difficulties facing Europe and the rest of the world. Close your eyes, block your ears and all will be well.
But while the UK has voted to isolate itself it can’t insulate itself from the consequences. The markets’ reaction has been swift: much as the experts reviled by the Leave campaign predicted, the pound has plummeted and stocks have gone into freefall. International companies will reconsider their presence and investments in the UK. A fresh recession is considered likely, with further cuts in public spending as a result. We don’t know who will replace David Cameron, but it is unlikely that whoever it is will be willing or able to spend an additional 350 million pounds per week on the NHS, the false campaign promise the Leave camp has already reneged on. The UK itself may now disintegrate; Scotland will likely hold a second independence referendum and Northern Ireland may hold one too, on reunification with the Republic of Ireland.
In Brussels the effects of the vote will also start to be felt immediately. European Council President Tusk rightly warned against hysterical reactions – a messy divorce is in no-one’s interest. But can anyone imagine the UK continuing to play a role in, say, the negotiations to conclude the TTIP free trade agreement with the United States? Will the UK continue to implement hated new EU laws until a Brexit deal is done? Will a new, even more eurosceptic Prime Minister curtail free movement in violation of EU law? That would go down well with Brexit voters but would doubtless lead to tit-for-tat reprisals from Britain’s EU partners. Will the EU continue to fund UK-based research when it will not longer serves the EU’s interests? Will it continue to provide regional aid to the UK’s poorer regions? Will British staff in the EU Institutions be sidelined, ahead of possible dismissal?
David Cameron said it would be for a new Prime Minister, to be in place by October, to trigger Article 50 of the EU Treaty which governs the process of negotiating Brexit. But it’s hard to see the rest of the EU waiting that long. It will want to get Brexit over and done with. Expect the EU to be unsentimental and calculating in dealing with Brexit. The best interests of the 27 will guide every decision. Britain stands to lose more than the rest of the EU and will have little leverage in the negotiations. It would be wise not to waste what little leverage it has on months or years of procedural wrangling.