If Britain wakes up on Friday morning to the news that it has voted itself out of the European Union, about the only thing that everyone is sure to agree on is that the nation will face a protracted political and legal mess.
For all the drama the moment would bring, there would be no instant change. European Union citizens could still come to Britain to live and work without a visa. Trade with the single market would continue unimpeded. Brussels would continue to regulate bananas.
Instead, the process of decoupling would officially begin only when the British government chooses to invoke a previously unused provision of the bloc’s governing treaty, known as Article 50, that sets out the basics of the withdrawal process. The most critical element of Article 50 is that, once invoked, it sets a two-year deadline for a negotiated departure. Beyond that, no one really knows how the process would work, since no country has ever left the European Union. Moreover, it is up to the British government when to invoke Article 50, and it is not entirely clear whether Prime Minister David Cameron, who has led the campaign to stay, would stick to his stated plan to invoke it immediately if the country votes to leave.
In legal terms, the British government is not even bound by the result of Thursday’s referendum, which is generally considered a tossup at this point. In a report for the Constitution Society, Richard Gordon and Rowena Moffat said, “The government could, in strict law, choose to ignore it.” Most members of Parliament – including the majority of the governing Conservatives in the House of Commons and nearly all of the opposition Labour Party – are also opposed to leaving the bloc, though Parliament would probably not get a direct vote on whether or when to invoke Article 50.
Politically, however, it would be almost impossible to overlook the outcome of the first plebiscite on Britain’s place in Europe in 41 years. “Given the constitutional significance of the issue at stake,” the report’s authors say, “it is inconceivable that the government could choose not to be bound by the result.”
In fact, one of the few certainties about a vote in favour of Britain leaving the European Union – a Brexit – is that initially, at least, it will plunge capitals on both sides of the English Channel, but in Britain in particular, into complex negotiations and political jockeying that could last for years.
Despite Cameron’s plans to invoke Article 50 swiftly after the vote, he would face pressure to delay starting the two-year clock from those in his party who favour leaving.
Their thinking is that before starting the clock, Britain should start informally negotiating a new trade deal with the European Union in tandem with the terms of Britain’s departure from the bloc. They suggest that Britain would lose considerable leverage in negotiating a new trade deal once it was outside the bloc, and that it could get a better trade deal as part of a negotiation that encompasses all aspects of the new cross-channel relationship.
Once the two-year Article 50 term expires, Britain would be outside the single European market for services and become subject to possible tariffs on goods. The pro-departure camp does not want to negotiate a new trade pact with that clock ticking.