A few media outlets have described the actual process by which the U.K. would leave the European Union (EU) if voters elect to do so this week. The referendum question is “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” We would support Brexit if we were British.
Under Article 50 the EU treaty, a country’s departure will be effective two years after the departing member notifies the European Council of its intent to leave.
This period is supposed to provide time for the departing member to negotiate its relationship with the EU—trade deals and the like—but Article 50 makes it clear that the member will depart after two years regardless of whether any such negotiations are completed, unless the EU, including the departing member, unanimously agrees to extend the deadline.
We could see any number of scenarios by which the U.K government simply ignores the will of the voters if Brexit passes. The referendum is not legally binding.
No doubt the rest of the European Union will drag its feet on negotiations and strike a hard bargain. The bloc apparently perceives that the U.K. would have little leverage, and we expect the shrill socialists who represent the continental political class to punish the U.K however it can, both to discourage other members from getting the idea to exit and because they despise the U.K.’s individualistic, pro-market, pro-globalization, pro-America identity in general.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s resignation, expected in the event of a Brexit win, could be the first upheaval that would pave the way for U.K. politicians to make excuses to void the will of the voters, especially if the vote is close. Theresa May and George Osborne, who both have endorsed staying in the EU, are leading candidates to replace Cameron, as is Boris Johnson, who has endorsed leaving. It may seem odd for the Tories to replace a resigned Cameron with someone else on the losing side, but such fecklessness is what we have come to expect from the Conservative Party.
Could a new pro-EU government try to marshal public support to stay in anyway? Parliamentary elections are not due until May 2020, around two years after the supposed deadline for the breakup to be finalized. We could easily envision a scenario whereby, once the media and EU demonization of the U.K. kicks into high gear, the government throws up its hands and says, Wait, the outcome is likely to be much more detrimental to us than we expected, so we need a pause.
What if the political cycle, say a year from now, finds the Tories behind in the polls, perhaps due in part to the negative climate brought about by the negotiations? We could even see the Tories calling early elections as an act of desperation—perhaps even planning to lose—and using the political turmoil and/or the formation of a new government as excuses to suspend the negotiations and ask the EU to extend the deadline. If Labor wins the next election, and the process of leaving is not finalized, would they be expected to honor the obsolete vote? (Current Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn has always been considered a Euroskeptic, but he may come around or may not become prime minister if Labor wins; the rest of the caucus is strongly pro-EU of course.)
Suppose some other shock hits the U.K. in the next two years: a successful Scottish secession referendum (although Scotland is more pro-EU than England, the government could still use the disruption as an excuse to rethink Brexit); a major recession; a major Islamic terrorist attack; Russian agitation; some EU action that could be spun as a game-changer; the death of Queen Elizabeth II; the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president; etc., etc., etc. The media and political class would certainly blame every real or imagined ill that befalls the U.K. over the next two years on the “Leave” vote.
The legitimacy of such excuses wouldn’t matter much. We have high confidence that the establishment could say, Well, due to the tremendous temporary upheaval caused by ________________, it is just not prudent to continue down this course now.
Maybe they will decide to call another referendum in light of whatever crisis emerges. We can easily envision Jean-Claude Juncker, or whichever tinpot socialist bureaucrat represents the continental status quo at the time, shaking hands with some Labor prime minister in Brussels in 2019 or 2020, both with stupid grins on their faces, as they announce agreement to shove the Brexit vote of 2016 down the rabbit hole.