IN THE end, the majority of Britons decided to take the big leap into the unknown, voting to leave the EU and, as Brexit campaigners kept repeating, take control of their country. Few had expected this outcome which has unsettled Westminster, sent shock-waves across Europe, shaken up Brussels and caused turmoil in the markets.
Prime Minister David Cameron, whose decision it was to have a referendum, announced his plan to step down by October and make way for a new leader who would have the responsibility of invoking Article 50 and negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU. Negotiations for the divorce settlement have a time limit of two years, after which membership would expire, regardless of whether the new agreements have been finalised. Britain would still be a member of the EU, while the negotiations are in process.
In this time, the full realisation of the consequences of the Brexit could hit home, because regardless of what the ‘Leave’ campaigners were saying, the country would be entering uncharted territory. Apart from the forecasted slowdown of the economy, caused by the uncertainty the prospect of the exit creates in relation to trade, investment and free movement, there could be calls for another Scottish referendum – Scotland having voted overwhelmingly in favour of staying in the EU – and big problems for Northern Ireland, which would have to close its borders with the Republic once Britain leaves the EU.
But this would also be a testing period for the EU, with Brussels having the difficult task of ensuring other members do not follow Britain’s example. Perhaps, this was why some Brussels officials were calling on Friday for the immediate start of exit negotiations and the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, bluntly urged a tough line towards Britain. Brussels wants to set an example through hard bargaining with Britain in order to discourage other members from leaving.
At the same time, there have also been voices in Brussels questioning the Union’s plans for greater political integration – one of the points repeatedly made by Brexiteers – arguing that this might not be what the people of member states actually want. The EU leadership, repeatedly accused of being out of touch and living in a bubble, now has an opportunity to explore what kind of Union the people of member states want, instead of trying to impose its own vision on disparate populations.
Britain has made its decision, and will have to live with the consequences, but the objective of the rest of the EU must be to ensure that no other member state follows suit. And this might mean re-formulating of Brussels’ long-term plans.