It's no certainty that the UK will ever leave the EUby David Allen Green / July 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Leave campaign won the referendum battle—the question is now whether it can win the Brexit war. This is in doubt. Winning the referendum was not enough. The vote was not legally binding. This means that it was nothing more than a glorified consultation exercise. An expensive and politically significant one, but one also of no formal legal consequence.
This lack of legal consequence took many by surprise. David Cameron had said that the result would come into effect “straight away.” But that was back when the government was expecting to win.
If the fault of the “Remain” campaign was its complacency, the fault of the “Leave” campaign (or at least those “Leave” campaigners who wanted to win) was that it thought winning the referendum would be enough. There was little or no planning for what would come next.
And so when the prime minister resigned without making the notification of the UK’s intention to withdraw to the European Council, an unstable political situation was created. It would be for the next prime minister to decide when to send the formal notification. This notification triggers a process with a hard deadline of two years: whether or not an exit deal is agreed. In other words, the UK would be out of the EU in two years or less. Extensions need unanimity and so cannot be counted on.
By detaching the referendum result from its immediate implementation, the prime minister created the possibility that the notification would never be sent at all. This is in part because of the natural tendency in British politics for events and excuses to intervene and slow down constitutional change. And it is in part because few British politicians with any power actually want the UK to leave the EU.