British Exit From EU Not Inevitable, Despite Referendum

Since the vote on the United Kingdom's European Union membership was an advisory rather than a mandatory referendum, it is not legally binding.

Boris Johnson waved British flags from a zip line to promote the London Olympics in 2012. Photo: Barcroft Media

In the first hours after the British public voted to exit the European Union, amid all sorts of triumphal statements and recriminations, one declaration was notably absent: the formal notification to the EU that the United Kingdom intends to leave the organization, which is required to start the clock on negotiations for a departure.

Prime Minister David Cameron, who led the failed campaign to convince voters to stay in the EU, told the public that an exit would not happen soon, as he intended to resign in three months and leave it to his successor to decide “when to trigger Article 50” of the union’s basic agreement, the Lisbon Treaty, which says that a member state has two years after declaring its desire to leave to negotiate the terms of its exit.

Speaking to the press a short time later, the man considered most likely to be prime minister in October, Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, also seemed in no hurry to get the process started.

“In voting to leave the EU, it is vital to stress that there is no need for haste,” Johnson said, “and indeed, as the prime minister has just said, nothing will change over the short term, except that work will have to begin on how to give effect to the will of the people and to extricate this country from the supranational system.”

Given that the popular mandate his side had just won was summed up in a single word on the backdrop behind him, “Leave,” it seemed odd that Johnson made no mention of the fastest way to get that process started, by pressing for an immediate Article 50 declaration.

That fact did not escape observers in other parts of Europe, like the former foreign minister of Sweden Carl Bildt.

The reason could be that Johnson has something very different in mind: a negotiated compromise that would preserve most of the benefits of EU membership for British citizens and businesses but still satisfy the popular will to escape the attendant responsibilities and costs.

In this context, it is important to keep two things in mind. First, it was Johnson himself who suggested, when he joined the Leave campaign in February, that a vote to depart could be used as a stick to negotiate not a full departure from the EU, but a better deal for the U.K. “There is only one way to get the change we need, and that is to vote to go, because all EU history shows that they only really listen to a population when it says ‘No,’” Johnson wrote then. “It is time to seek a new relationship, in which we manage to extricate ourselves from most of the supranational elements.”

Second, as the legal blogger David Allen Green has explained clearly, the measure Britons just voted for “was an advisory not a mandatory referendum,” meaning that it is not legally binding on the government. No matter who the prime minister is, he or she is not required by the outcome to trigger Article 50. And, despite what senior figures in the EU and its other states might say, there is no way for them to force the U.K. to invoke Article 50.

What all this means in practice is that, while it would be political suicide for any leader to try to avoid acting to satisfy the popular will expressed at the ballot box, there is some wiggle room for a new government to try to find a compromise arrangement that would satisfy a larger share of the population than just the slim majority of voters who demanded separation.

As he makes up his mind on whether to seek the premiership and considers how to appeal to the nearly half of the British population that wanted to stay in the EU, Johnson did not have to go far to get a sense of the seething outrage in parts of the country, like London, that voted overwhelmingly against leaving. Walking out of his home on Friday, Johnson was booed and jeered by some of his neighbors, who chanted, “scum” and “traitor.”

He might also have caught his father, Stanley Johnson, appearing on television on Friday to discuss the results, wearing a T-shirt with the word “Remain” on it, making it clear that even within the politician’s own family, pro-Europe sentiment was strong.

Then there is also the fact that, as Matthew Parris notes in a column on the bizarre politics of what comes next in London’s Times, “About 160 of the 650 MPs elected last year want Britain to leave the EU. The overwhelming majority of Westminster MPs believes that leaving would be a mistake. Many believe it would be a very grave mistake. Not a few believe it would be calamitous.” Because of that, Parris observes, “Our experiment in direct democracy is hurtling towards our tradition of representative democracy like some giant asteroid towards a moon.”

Given that a two-thirds majority of the current Parliament opposes leaving the EU, Parris suggested, a new general election next year was almost inevitable, further delaying even the start of the process.

While it is hard to predict just what the mood in the country might be then, there were also signs on Friday of an ugly current of xenophobia inspired by the Leave campaign’s rhetoric against immigration that a new prime minister will have to reckon with.

After the financial markets reacted to the vote for a British exit from the EU as predicted, with a sharp drop in the value of the British pound, some Leave voters instantly regretted their decisions.

Meanwhile, other senior figures in the Leave campaign started to retreat from central elements of their platform — like the promise that money saved on EU membership dues would be used to shore up the National Health Service and there would be a halt in the flow of migrant workers from abroad.

So, as the BBC explained concisely, at this stage it remains entirely possible that the deal eventually worked out could result in an association agreement that is not all that different from full membership in the EU.

On the other side of the negotiating table, though, will be European leaders eager to ensure that a deal with the British is not so favorable for the defectors that it might encourage separatists in other nations.

Top photo: Boris Johnson got stuck on a zip line in 2012 while waving Union Jacks to promote the London Olympics.

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