June 23, 2016 will be remembered as a shocking day for the European history: What nobody expected has actually happened. The world’s eyes were all pointed at the EU and the UK, wondering what their future could be after the fatidic vote. Let’s go through some basic facts.
Everyone thought that despite all the problems, the anger, and the criticism towards the EU, the British would never really vote for leaving the Union. Everyone simply thought that it was impossible, that it would have been too hard to face. But then it actually happened. And what was considered impossible became the effective reality.
We can now say that it was not wise for Cameron to call for a referendum for such a delicate and important question. Not that the people cannot choose for that issue, but too many manipulative factors were on the table – for example the populist influence of the parties such as UKIP, which have an indiscriminate capacity to influence people and convince them that the EU was responsible for all the evil in the world, and that leaving for Britain could mean a new successful and bright beginning as a powerful country it once was.
Moreover, people’s anger towards the elites, the distant government, was transformed into against-EU sentiments that made this trauma possible. We can actually question ourselves on all the possible factors that influenced the vote, and on the fact that it was not a good idea, but the reality is that it happened, and now we have to face the consequences of it.
A New Referendum?
Calling for a new referendum would be pointless. UK citizens expressed their will, spoilt and ill-informed or not, and it would be quite absurd to ask them again the same question, as if we were asking them to change their vote because it brought too many problems.
People’s will has been expressed, and if someone voted not fully aware of what their vote would mean, it does not really matter. Voting is not only a right, but also a duty, a responsibility for every citizen of a democratic country. And it is the citizens’ responsibility to be well informed on the issues they are voting on – it is not a game or something that has to be taken superficially. And if after voting we realize that we were not informed enough about the issue, it is our fault, and we have to pay the price. We cannot just say, “I’m sorry, I made a mistake, let’s just do it again”. It would be completely foolish. UK citizens have voted, and now they have to assume the responsibility for the result.
The new Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed that there will not be any other referendum to re-confirm the will of the nation, “Brexit means Brexit” she said, even if the meaning of that expression is quite vague.
When Will Britain Leave the EU?
So, what is going to happen now? Almost three months have passed and no move from Downing Street has been yet made. It seems that the Prime Minister is not going to submit the BREXIT question to the Parliament, but she is going to directly act, triggering the famous Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), regarding the withdrawal of a Member State from the Union.
In short, the Article states that if a Member State wants to withdraw from the Union (a possibility that has been inserted only with the Lisbon treaty, before that time it was not clear if a State could actually leave the EU, because there was no official procedure described in the treaties), it has to notify its intention to the European Council, which will trace the guidelines for a negotiation agreement between the withdrawing state and the Union, including the future relationship between these two agents. This agreement will be concluded according to Article 218 TFEU, describing the procedure that the Union has to follow to conclude agreements with third countries and other international organizations.
For the UK, the EU treaties will not apply anymore once the new withdrawal treaty is concluded, or, if it is not yet in force, after two years from the triggering of Art. 50. If the negotiations are not closed after two years, there is a possibility of extending the negotiation time, if the European Council decides so unanimously.
Understandably, the procedure requires a long time to be fully implemented, since the UK will have to redefine its new relations with the Union, its position in the internal market and towards the freedom of movement of workers within the EU area (the two factors that are linked, because we cannot have an integrated internal free market without having freedom of people’s movement), and also its new economic relations with other non-EU countries. This will require more than two years to be fully concluded (provided that the European Council gives its unanimous consent to the period prolongation, which is something that cannot be taken for granted).
Certainly, before all these process can begin, the UK government has to trigger the article. Thus, the first move is up to Downing Street, which for now has not yet decided when it will act in this sense. Theresa May, the new prime minister after Cameron’s resignation, has declared that the procedure will not be triggered at least until the beginning of the new year. This could be reasonable on the one hand, because the British government has to shape its position and its intentions, so that when the negotiations begin, it will be clear what they want to obtain, and which kind of relationship with the EU they want to have in the future. On the other hand, some could argue that May is just taking time to avoid the implementation of the referendum’s result, which is quite unlikely, since after all “Brexit means Brexit”, and that she will not call for another referendum because UK citizens already expressed their will, and the government will respect it.
The starting of the negotiations could be shifted to the end of the next year though, because of the German elections in autumn 2017, which is a worrying perspective that would encourage people to confirm the fact that the effective withdrawal could never happen, or that it will be delayed forever.
What Are the Consequences for the EU?
What is also important is the future of the EU, and the possible consequences that will follow the Brexit. The June 23 referendum has been clearly a punch in the face for the Union, that could provoke undesired and dangerous outcomes in the Continent.
First of all, the growing and strengthening of populist parties in several European countries is worrying. Right after the final results of the referendum, European populist and extremist parties, (such as Front National in France and Lega Nord in Italy) were crying victory and calling for the next to go out. Surely, this is not a good moment for the Union’s history, and the dangers of raising extremism, racism, disillusion and anger is high. But people should remember what happened in the past. They should be smart enough to bear in mind that there has already been a time when charismatic leaders came to power, declaring to be capable and ready to make their nations strong again, and to “eliminate” the (external, or foreign) enemy that brought their country down.
Everyone knows what happened then, and we shall never take for granted that this is not going to happen again. But if we open a history book, we can see and understand that violence and intolerance are not good ingredients for a new recovery. Isolation and stubbornness just cause more isolation and more stubbornness, and European governments should know that and try to do everything in their power to avoid catastrophic results.
It is clear that every Member State is upset with the Union for different reasons that reflect their internal problems. But the truth is that we can still work together to fix the main difficulties that the EU is facing today.
Actually, a possible effect of Brexit is a new cooperative push towards more integration. This is very hard to imagine right now, when the EU seems to be more in an “intensive care” phase rather than in a new beginning. But the UK’s exit can also be seen positively: Britain has always been the “deadweight”, it has always opposed “more integration projects”, such as the European army, and thus its absence could actually bring to a revival of a more strong and united Europe.
If that is going to happen or not, it is up to our governments and to the EU institutions, which have to work together, facing also the thorniest issues, and trying to respond with unity to all the challenges that the Union is facing right now.
The “Bratislava Roadmap” seems to be tepid and unsatisfying answer to this “critical time for the European project”, as the meeting Declaration states. The “concrete measures” proposed to face the issues of migration and external borders, security, and development, seem to be quite vague, but since this meeting was an “informal” one, we will probably have to wait for the coming formal European Council meetings, where hopefully a more detailed implementation plan of the concrete measures will be outlined.