This has been a week of shrieking headlines telling us “UK Leaves EU” or “Britain Out of Europe”.
The headlines refer to the referendum held last Thursday asking Brits whether they wish to remain in or get out of the European Union. As you know, a slight majority voted to leave the EU. That, however, doesn’t mean the UK is already out or even if it will ever be.
Though Britain’s unwritten constitution has no clear position on the issue, the consensus is that a referendum has no more than an advisory effect.
The reason is clear.
Britain is a representative democracy in which the parliament, representing the nation’s sovereignty, makes the laws. For “Brexit” to become something more than a formal opinion poll it has to become law. This requires a process that starts with the Cabinet endorsing the result of the referendum which hasn’t happened and will not happen under Prime Minister David Cameron’s caretaker government.
Once the next government is formed, presumably sometime next October, the Cabinet could endorse “Brexit”, and move to the second stage of the process by preparing a draft bill for submission to the House of Commons.
In the present House of Commons, partisans of “Brexit” do not have a majority. Thus any bill submitted for its implementation may either fail to get approval or, in a bid to fudge the issue, offer nothing but a shadow of the “Brexit” that the most ardent anti-EU partisans hoped for.
In any case, the way would be open for the third stage of the process, that is to say triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty that allows EU members to negotiate withdrawal from the club.
However, the new Prime Minister may feel that he cannot trigger Article 50 without a specific mandate from the electorate. However, under the last coalition government Britain opted for a fixed-term parliament which means the current House of Commons should continue until 2020. To dissolve the current parliament, the House of Commons must approve early elections with a two-third majority. That could allow for fresh general elections, perhaps, next May, the earliest date realistically possible. And that would mean entering unchartered territory.
It is quite possible that the next election would produce a new version of the current parliament in which “Brexit” does not have a majority. In fact, several parties, notably the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Liberal- Democrat Party have made it clear they would enter any new election with a program of remaining in the EU.
By then the main opposition Labour Party may also have a new leader and revert to the pro-EU platform it has had since 1975. Referenda seldom work in the context of representative democracies.
The reason is that in a representative democracy every issue is linked to all other issues in the manner of pieces of a jigsaw fitting together to produce a whole. In a referendum, on other hand, focus is on one issue, magnifying it beyond its actual importance while voters approach it from many different, often contradictory, directions. In this case, for example, you had ultra-liberals and neo-fascists, from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, voting together for “Brexit”.
Of course, because representative democracy is prosaic while referenda are romantic, many are seduced by “direct democracy” a chimera that gives the illusion of power to those who feel powerless. A referendum allows the “humiliated” citizen to thumb his nose at “the powerful elites” and to show that he, too, is somebody. This is partly why some 17 million Brits ignored all the warnings from “experts”, foreign dignitaries, and, of course, almost all political parties against voting to leave. However, if everybody is somebody then nobody is anybody.
A referendum is like a one-night stand that could provoke intense passions but leave behind a heap of miseries. Even then, the Brexit vote should not be dismissed as a mistake by the electorate. Democracy sets the rules of the game but does not guarantee the results. Also, it offers the freedom to make the wrong choice.
But let us return to the process. Once the new parliament has authorized the new government to trigger the exit negotiations with the EU, the two sides will have a minimum of two years to work out a deal. That period, however, could be extended on the request of any of the 27 remaining EU members. Thus, assuming there is no hitch on the way, the earliest the UK and EU can consume their divorce would be in 2019 or 2020.
Even then, taking the UK out of the EU is one thing while taking the EU out of the UK is quite another. Over the past four decades the UK has committed itself to over 22,000 European Union laws, rules and regulations affecting every aspect of the nation’s life. Although some Brits are negatively affected by some of those laws, rules and regulations, others have benefited from them and, once they realize what losing them may mean, might think twice about taking the plunge.
For example, British workers benefit from the most socially advanced laws regarding employment often “imposed” by EU in the teeth of opposition from British Conservative governments. At the other end of the spectrum, the British services industry notably in the finance sector has secured advantages that the prevailing liberal-left mood of the British electorate might not wish to endorse.
Anyone familiar with the British political scene would know that there is no sustainable majority for leaving the EU. If that were the case, the political elite, starting with Premier Cameron, could simply re-incorporate all EU laws, rules and regulations into British law with a single bill and then walk away from the EU with a pledge to amend and, if necessary, cancel any that might be deemed harmful to British national interest. This was how Greenland, an autonomous region of Denmark, became the first EU member to divorce it.
The fact that the “elite” including people like Boris Johnson, the colourful politician who led the “Brexit” camp are dragging their feet, if not actually back-pedaling, shows that they don’t really want full divorce. Even Michael Gove, another “Brexit” star is now talking of seeking a “Norwegian” compromise. Norway and Switzerland, along with Iceland and Lichtenstein, are de facto members of EU, obey its rules, pay their membership fee, and accept free movement of citizens, without taking part in the EU decision-making mechanism or voting in its institutions.
Such a compromise would mean that the UK would retain access to the “single market” while accepting the freedom of movement rule that allows other EU citizens to settle in Britain. The only change would be Britain losing its right to vote on EU laws and regulations.
That, of course, may calm some egos bruised by being in a system in which the UK and Malta both have one vote each. In reality, however, the UK would be only nominally out of the EU while the EU would remain deeply woven into the UK’s very fabric.
Remember, you first read it here: Wheels are already in motion to make sure Brexit isn’t going to happen!