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Brexit or Bremain: a long and winding road ahead?

The partisans in favour of the UK leaving the European Union (EU) prevailed with almost 52 percent of the votes cast in the referendum on 23 June 2016. The turnout was around 72 percent of the electorate, an impressive number. But is the UK really on its way out? I am not so sure.

What I am certain of is that this will not be a simple process. It will be complicated, complex and long, probably much longer than the three-​year window presently being discussed. If the UK activates the EU article 50 clause that triggers the dis-​membership process at the end of 2016, as seems to be the present intention of Theresa May’s government, the earliest Brexit date would be the beginning of 2019.

But note that neither London nor Brussels appear to have the first clue as to how to proceed. Having not at all anticipated the victory of the BREXIT camp, they have no plan and find themselves in more or less total disarray.

Moreover, a lot could happen moving forward that could call the overall logic of BREXIT into question.

First, there is the economic situation. After a downturn after the referendum, the British pound now seems to have stabilized. The real question, though, is what will happen to the UK economy as the uncertainty surrounding BREXIT strengthens. The UK economy has profited from large-​scale investment from other EU members, the US, China, and many other countries because of its language, its rule of law, and its preparedness to accommodate folks from other parts, both rich and less so. But under the current circumstances, would you put your money into the UK?

A second issue is historical. The EU’s evolution is littered with referenda. Almost invariably, an anti-​EU referendum result has been succeeded by a rerun in which a pro-​EU position has prevailed. Admittedly, the Brexit referendum is the most challenging one that has come the way of the EU since its inception. That said, why should we expect Britain’s referendum experience to depart from the norm?

Then there are the constitutional issues. For example, Scotland, whose population voted to stay in the EU, as did that of Northern Ireland and Gibraltar, might very well withhold its approval of a UK parliament decision to leave the EU. This would probably not block a BREXIT but could spawn a constitutional crisis of the first order. Moreover, even if the British government does not need to obtain a mandate from parliament to activate Article 50, this body has an anti-​BREXIT majority; sooner or later, it will be asked to nullify the UK’s EU accession agreement of 1973. Then too, the European parliament, with its representatives from 27 countries, will be called upon to approve any UK-​EU BREXIT deal.

There are also a number of related developments that could transform the political environment. The UK could experience a change of government in the lead-​up to a BREXIT. That government could argue that it had neither introduced nor favoured the referendum in the first place, and that it was free to restate and repose the question. This would, of course, be easier for a government that was neither Conservative nor Labour. However, in view of the shifts at work in the British political party environment, this is anything but unthinkable.

Finally, there is the strategic dimension. BREXIT will be completed at the earliest in 2019. Think back three years ago. Then, the refugee flows into the EU had not yet assumed historical proportions. Ukraine had not yet to cope with a crass infringement of its sovereignty and the presence of foreign soldiers on its territory. Syria was still a relatively manageable problem with no Russian presence.

And think forward three years, and all the things that could happen as the present becomes future.

My sense of the UK is that when strategic push comes to shove, it shoves, especially if the US is at its shoulder. The UK would not want to see the European security environment descend into chaos as it has done on far too many occasions in the past. If, under such circumstances, it thought a BREXIT would make a critical situation worse, the British Government would likely do its all to prevent the additional destabilization that a BREXIT would import.

At the same time, one can argue that not to invoke article 50, or to attempt to disregard it once it had been, could carry considerable electoral risks for the party in power in London. On the other side of the Channel, the default position of governments would likely be to favour minimizing uncertainty once article 50 had been invoked – and getting it over with as soon as possible.

A last and potentially decisive consideration is the number of EU countries possibly considering referenda similar to the one that was held in Britain. The extreme-​right in countries as France and Holland could succeed in their quest for power and organize – as they have promised they will do – a referendum on their country’s membership in the EU. Should they succeed, a BREXIT would likely become unstoppable, as would the disintegration of the EU.

So, the road ahead looks likely to be a long one, and anything but linear.

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