Jun 28, 2016 | 09:01 GMT

4 mins read

New Political Battles Begin in Britain

New Political Battles Begin in Britain
(JACK TAYLOR/Getty Images)

Now that British voters have expressed their desire to leave the European Union, politicians in the United Kingdom and on the Continent are planning their next steps. According to Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, a country wishing to leave the bloc must formally notify Brussels of its intention before negotiations can begin. Until that happens, the country in question is still considered a full EU member and cannot be expelled from the bloc. As British and EU leaders digest the results of the referendum, political infighting in the United Kingdom could delay the withdrawal process and even trigger new elections. 

During the referendum campaign, British Prime Minister David Cameron promised that he would give the required notice immediately in the event of a "leave" victory. After the vote, however, Cameron announced that he would resign in October and turn the decision to notify the European Union over to his successor, who will likely be a member of the "leave" camp. Cameron probably made the decision with the idea that the political and economic situation in the United Kingdom would be so complex by October that his successor might choose to ignore the results of the nonbinding referendum. After all, early reactions to the referendum — including drops in the pound sterling and on the stock exchange, Scottish threats to leave the United Kingdom and a cold response from EU leaders — foretell difficult months ahead for the United Kingdom. Cameron's gamble is that the Brexit vote will prove politically and economically easier to disregard than it is to respect.

The Road to a Successor

Much of the Brexit's future depends on the political situation in the United Kingdom. The ruling Conservative Party is split: Roughly half the party's lawmakers supported a Brexit. In an attempt to curtail the party's political uncertainty, the Conservative committee in charge of leadership elections recommended on June 27 that the new party leader, who will also become the country's new prime minister, be appointed by early September. But this may be easier said than done. To succeed Cameron, a willing politician would have to first win the Conservative Party's nomination and then survive any potential no-confidence votes in Parliament. After that, he or she would have to determine how — and whether — to proceed with the exit process. Constitutional lawyers have argued that any prime minister would need Parliamentary approval to trigger Article 50.

Meanwhile, the British public may be having second thoughts. In the referendum, the "leave" camp prevailed by more than a million votes. Even so, economic and political turmoil could prompt a change of heart among voters, and the public may decide that the price of leaving the European Union is simply too high. Some voters are already collecting signatures for a second referendum.

In light of the doubts plaguing Britain's people and its ruling party, the United Kingdom could be headed for early elections, either because of insufficient support in Parliament for whoever is picked as the new prime minister or because of the new government's desire to seek popular legitimation. If that happens, all bets are off. The Conservative Party could break into pro- and anti-EU factions. The Labour Party, which faces a leadership crisis of its own, may elect a pro-EU candidate and promise to work to keep Britain in the bloc. Smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats are likely to support any pro-EU governments.

What Remains to Be Seen

Whether appointed by the Conservative Party or chosen in snap elections, Cameron's successor could try to negotiate a better agreement for the United Kingdom with Brussels. In 2001 and 2008, Ireland's voters rejected EU treaties in referendums. Once Dublin negotiated concessions from Brussels, however, the Irish public voted again, this time approving the treaties. But voting against an EU treaty is not the same as voting against EU membership. Moreover, when the European Union made its concessions to Ireland, Euroskepticism was not nearly the force in Europe that it is today. Brussels can no longer afford to make concessions to a renegade member country as it did a decade ago.

This explains why political developments in Europe will be just as important as British politics in determining a Brexit strategy. The leaders of Germany, France and Italy met in Berlin on June 27 to discuss the British referendum. Paris and Rome, along with the heads of several EU institutions, want the United Kingdom to start the withdrawal process as soon as possible. Germany, on the other hand, would like to wait, hoping that political developments in the United Kingdom could stop a Brexit before it begins. All three agree, however, that Britain cannot hold informal negotiations with Europe before announcing its intention to withdraw, as some members of the "leave" camp had proposed.

For now, the United Kingdom and the rest of the European Union will opt to wait and see. As long as Cameron remains prime minister, the United Kingdom will not trigger Article 50. Though the Scottish government will try to negotiate with the European Union over ways to retain its membership in the bloc, it will wait for developments in London before making any definite moves. Despite pressuring London to formalize its intentions, the European Union will be unable to expedite the political process in the United Kingdom. In the meantime, political uncertainty will continue to hurt the British economy and fuel Euroskeptic sentiment in Europe.

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