‘MAY you live in interesting times’ goes the old apocryphal Chinese curse and interesting times do indeed lie ahead for Britain and the European Union who will now part ways after a stormy marriage spanning more than four decades.
After 52 per cent of eligible British voters chose to leave, thwarting the optimism of last minute polling favouring the Remainers, facts on the ground have already changed dramatically.
The prime minister David Cameron has announced his resignation, opening the way to a leadership contest for the Conservative command, with Boris Johnson as a firm favourite, and even raising the possibility of a fresh general election.
Within hours of the result £128 billion had been wiped off the FTSE 100 as the pound tumbled to a 31-year-low and looked set to witness its biggest one-day-loss in history, expected to be sure, but hardly an encouraging omen for a nation preparing to set sail from its largest trading partner.
Both camps had admitted ignorance as to how events might unfold should the country vote to leave, with the rivals factions using the spectre of the ‘unknown’ to press their cases to the electorate.
Now that our voyage into the void is confirmed, speculation stands on stronger ground and we can begin composing an image of how events might unfold.
Although the voters have spoken, the process of leaving will be tortuous and convoluted. Nothing will officially manifest until the UK government triggers Article 50 which sets in motion a two-year notice period for a member state to leave the union.
Constitutionally speaking Article 50 can only be invoked by the prime minister, not parliament, although MP’s can pass a motion instructing the prime minister not to trigger the article. With Cameron resigning that responsibility now lies in the hands of his successor, while the prime minister can technically not leave his post without advising the Queen of whom that might be.
Jeremy Corbyn will likely launch a confidence vote in a bid to spark fresh elections but is highly unlikely to succeed in a Tory dominated parliament, filled with MP’s desperate for some measure of stability and clearly at odds with public opinion.
As the wheels slowly turn on Britain’s protracted exit from the union, British politics is where we will likely see the most action. The vast majority of politicians supported the status quo and are now proven to be out of lockstep with increasingly angry constituents, many of whom voted Brexit simply to spite Cameron and the ruling elites.
Britain must now answer serious questions on democratic accountability and, unless a controversial Brexit faction takes over at the helm of government, we can expect voices from the Mail and UKIP to demand that parliament itself stands down.
Should the Brexiteers successfully execute their coup, battle plans will likely be drawn up in Scotland where the nationalists have made clear that the result justifies a second independence referendum, especially given overwhelming Scottish support for the Remain camp.
With two years to orchestrate a deal before Britain automatically reverts to the World Trade Organisation regime, whereby all goods sold to the EU will incur tariffs, the negotiations are likely to be both bitter and delicate.
Any deal will require the backing of 20 of the 27 member states, all of whom will be considering incredibly varied calculations as to what is in their best interests.
While the UK is doubtlessly an essential trading partner member states would be loathe to needlessly antagonise, they must also have one eye of their own restless electorates and the possibility that another chink in their collective armour might prove fatal.
It may well be in the states’ best interest to punish Britain as a warning to other prospective exiteeers, a threat roundly dismissed by the Leave campaign who seek solace in a thinly spread commonwealth and across the Atlantic.
Alternatively, given that two years is a long time in politics (only two years ago we were discussing the Scottish referendum), it is entirely plausible that the continent’s political landscape will shift in Brexit’s favour.
Marine Le Pen, the French nationalist who is making serious strides in local elections, has welcomed the result and demanded a referendum in her own country, which remains gripped by tensions over immigration and a growing chasm between European elites and the common people.
Sweden, Poland, Hungary, Holland and Denmark are also witnessing strengthening calls for similar referendums, lending credence to the idea that Brexit may well be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
While all the wrangling goes on behind closed doors the key question for British workers, pensioners and expats is whether the country will remain in the single market.
This would represent the so-called ‘Norway model’ advocated by many euro-sceptics who view the Nordic country’s financial success outside of the union as an example worth following. Such a development would see Britain enjoy tariff-free access to the lucrative internal market but not have any say over the rules and regulations that make it up.
Norway does, however, have to implement around three quarters of EU legislation under this system while having negligible power or control over it. The country also has less control over immigration than the UK does at present.
Whether Britain remains in the market is impossible to tell at these early stages and will depend largely on the outcome of the negotiations which will have to consider everything from pensions to health care, free movement, rebates and highly complex payment issues.
The only precedent for leaving the EU was set by a semi-autonomous Greenland in 1985 due to a dispute over fishing rights when it had a population half the size of Dartford.