The result of the British referendum to leave the European Union (EU) has already left a trail of culprits, victims and intended and unintended consequences. Its primary outcome is grave uncertainty within Britain; within the EU; and for other countries and regions that do business with the EU and with Britain.
The entire episode is a calamity, built less on any insurmountable issues between Britain and its 27 partner-countries in the EU, and more on the narrow objectives of a few British politicians who sought to advance their own ambitions by preying on nationalist sentiment, racial bigotry and even nostalgia for past glories of Britain as a dominant power in the world.
David Cameron, the British Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader, believed that the ‘remain’ vote would win and, in the process, he would bury Boris Johnson, his anticipated challenger for the leadership of the party and the country. Trying to placate the Brexiteers in his own party, Cameron did not campaign hard enough, nor was he effective in demolishing the two main lies on which the Brexit campaign was based: the EU is responsible for destructive immigration into Britain by unwanted foreigners; and that, once out of the EU, the government would be able to pump £350 million per week on the flagging National Health system. As it turned out, Cameron lost and will surrender the Party leadership and the post of Prime Minister in September.
But, clear loser such as Cameron is, the expected rise of Boris Johnson did not only fail to happen, he has now been cast out of any leadership consideration. He is another loser. It seems that, faced with the frightening prospect of a dismembered Britain (as Scotland once again prepares to leave; this time with far greater certainty); the immediate loss of confidence in the British economy by the business community; and the reality that he would not be able to coerce the EU into accepting a relationship with Britain on British terms, he backpedalled on the kind of deal into which he would lead Britain. It was not a deal that met the Brexiteer standards of his close ally, Michael Gove, the present Justice Minister.
In the age-old tradition of the Conservative party’s capacity to assassinate their own, Gove announced that he had “come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead”. The knife was well and truly in Johnson’s back. Gove duly announced that he would run for the leadership.
As if turmoil in the ruling Conservative party is not enough, the main opposition Labour Party is also racked by internal strife. Members of the shadow Cabinet resigned, calling for its leader, Jeremy Corbin, to stand-down. He has adamantly refused to do so. But he is holding a bomb with a short fuse. He too will be blown into history shortly. In his case, only as a footnote. There will be no narrative of greatness in the main text.
All of this, leaves Britain rather rudderless until September when the Conservative Party will choose a new leader and foist that person on the British people who would not have voted for him or her – never a good thing for a sustainable premiership. And, it is to that person that the task will fall of deciding when, and how, Britain will follow the will of the 52% majority who voted to leave the EU. That person also has to figure out how to deal with the anger, bitterness and frustration of the 48% who don’t want to leave, and whose position now seems to be shared by the expressed remorse of those who, astoundingly, now claim that they were duped by the Brexiteers, including Nigel Farage, the leader of the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party, who was contemptuously received by the EU Parliament when he dared to show up to give them a lecture on Britain’s departure. Amid boos and heckling, Farage was asked by the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, “Why are you still here?”
But the most important thing is: when will the new British Prime Minister trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which is required to begin the negotiations for Britain’s exit from the EU? To do so, the British government has either to formally advise the EU Council, in writing, of its decision to withdraw or make an announcement in the Council. From that moment, the clock starts ticking for British withdrawal which must be concluded within 2 years unless extended unanimously by the EU Council – something that is unlikely to happen.
This means that countries, such as those in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), have two years in which to prepare for two separate sets of structured relationships – one with the remaining 27 members of the EU, and the other with Britain.
There is floating around on social media – and even some speculation in the mainstream press – that Britain might choose not to trigger Article 50, and opt simply to prolong consultations with the EU, until the government announces that it is not in Britain’s interest to do leave. That is a thought held by the most wishful of thinkers; it is in everyone’s interest that it should perish immediately; and that focus be placed on the real prospect of Britain ending its relationship with the EU in its present form. This idea was born from Cameron’s announcement that he will now handover starting the Article 50 process to his successor, even though he had repeatedly said during the Brexit campaign that, if the ‘leave’ faction won, he would trigger it immediately.
Incidentally, Article 50 activates the process of dismantling Britain’s relationship with the EU; not negotiating a new one. The Article only obliges the EU to take “account of any future relationship”, which obviously cannot be the existing one.
In any event, the British cannot ignore the referendum result which was specifically called for the electorate to decide whether they want to remain in, or leave, the EU. Article 50 has to be triggered shortly after the election of a new Conservative Party leader in September. If the choice of leader is the zealous Brexiteer, Michael Gove, then it will have to happen at once or Gove will lose political credibility and standing with his own base. Should it be any of the others, the pace will be more measured, but the process will have to begin nonetheless.
Fortunately, despite the enthusiasm to do so on the part of many of the EU member governments, only the government seeking to withdraw can trigger Article 50. So, the start of the process is left to the British government, but the EU is anxious to end the uncertainty of Britain’s precise relationship with it in the future. So is the business sector and the financial services community in the UK and the EU. So, too, is MERCOSUR, the Latin American trading group, that was on schedule to conclude negotiations for a free trade agreement by the end of this year. In the meantime, the British economy has begun to suffer with a knock-on effect for many, including the Caribbean.
It all seems so unnecessarily painful and unproductive – the British are in a pickle of their own making. Many lost, no one really won.
(Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the US and the OAS. He previously served as Ambassador to the EU and the WTO and as High Commissioner to the UK. The views expressed are his own)