It is annoying to hear commentators and politicians talking as if the U.K. is already in the process of leaving the E.U. Not so. All that has happened is that a non-binding referendum has been held which has split public opinion, roughly along age lines and with significant regional variation. It seems that politicians of all colours believe it impossible to regard the result as a protest, as a call for change, rather than as a desire to cut free from an economic and political union that has, on the whole, brought peace, prosperity and stability to the continent. 

Approximately 500 of the U.K.’s 650 MP’s, duly elected by the populace to govern them, believe that it would be contrary to the country’s best interests. These are precisely the people who, according to most legal experts, will need to vote positively to invoke Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. 

It would seem bizarre for them to do so when, barely a week after the referendum, 17% of those who voted Leave already believe it was a mistake, which would have tipped the result the other way, giving Remain a substantial victory. 

As the economic situation worsens in the coming weeks, this percentage is likely to increase. The benefits of leaving the E.U., if there are any, will only be felt in the long term. Meanwhile, the uncertainty is causing economic chaos, wiping vast sums off the value of pension funds and causing multinational companies from outside of the E.U. to reconsider their long-term investment plans.

Possibly the worst aspect (and there are many) of the referendum is that it was put to the nation as an emotional in/out decision (without needing a qualified majority). There was no concrete proposal to reflect upon in a rational manner. There were absurd promises of massive additional spending on the black hole that is the NHS (always a tear jerker) which were retracted the day after the result was declared. As was the promise to stop, or rigidly control, immigration from other E.U. states.. 

What is likely to happen now? 

Probably nothing, except hot air, for a considerable time. The U.K. government seems unlikely to invoke Article 50 before forthcoming Dutch, French and German elections, hoping the possible rise of nationalism in those countries brings to power governments who are more amenable to the British position. And the E.U. itself has made absolutely clear that there will not be any negotiations, even of an informal nature, until the U.K. has formally notified the rest of the member states of its intention to leave.

How long will it take before the U.K. could leave? 

Probably around four years, allowing for those elections and a two-year negotiation process for which the U.K. is ill-equipped because of a lack of trained trade negotiators. Which brings us to 2020 and the timing of the next General Election, if it isn’t held before then, due to “exceptional circumstances”, or to the governing party losing its overall majority of just four. 

It is feasible that there will be more than two viable political parties contesting the election under very differing platforms. Labour may well split in two and a vehemently pro-Europe party could well arise, based around the existing Lib-Dems, neo-liberal Labour members and the saner elements of the Tory party.

If you think that is an unlikely scenario, just look at what happened in Spain in the 2015 and 2016 general elections. Two historic major parties suddenly became four. The mayors of the two largest cities, Madrid and Barcelona, are from new parties. The President of the Corts Valencianes, the regional government which includes the third largest city, Valencia, is from one of the new parties and even in Andalusia which has been rock solid socialist since the death of Franco in 1975, the Socialists can now only govern with the support of Citizens, one of the emerging parties. The combined presence of the two major political parties in Catalonia (27 out of 135 members) is insignificant and, in the Basque Country, together they have less than one-third of the members. These two territories are particularly important as they are the principal engines of wealth creation in Spain.

If the U.K. government is in negotiations with the E.U. having invoked Article 50 and a pro-European coalition came to power, could the negotiations be terminated and the U.K. retain its membership of the E.U.? Absolutely. Right up until the last minute, according to the Law Society’s briefing on this subject:

Questions have also been raised as to the possibility of reversing a decision to withdraw after Article 50 has been triggered. This question was addressed by the House of Lords' EU Committee in its report published in May. Both expert witnesses agreed that the decision to withdraw can be reversed before the withdrawal agreement has come into effect. The Lords Committee report also concluded that Article 50 is the only way of withdrawing from EU membership consistent with EU and international law.

If Article 50 is invoked, it would seem to me sensible to hold a second referendum based on the real situation, once negotiations are concluded: Here’s the deal we have secured. Do you want to accept it and leave or cancel the negotiation and remain? This would force the electorate to make a grown-up decision rather than allowing a vote based on an unfounded fear that a wave of immigrants is going to steal their jobs, consume their health services and create terror. And many of those who voted Leave will have passed on and a new wave of younger voters, who overwhelmingly favour European integration, will be entitled to vote. 

One of the two prospective Prime Ministers, Theresa May, refuses to concede resident status to all 3 million E.U. citizens currently living in the U.K. She wants to retain this as a bargaining tool, she says, to negotiate on behalf of the 2 million British citizens living in E.U. countries. She bargains from a hopelessly weak position. The E.U. citizens living in Britain are almost all of productive working age, contributing to taxation and wealth generation. The reverse is true for British citizens living in E.U. countries such as Spain, France and Italy, who are mostly retirees who contribute very little to wealth creation and whose consumption of health and social services vastly outweighs that of the active E.U. population living in the U.K.

Apparently, the other candidate, Angela Leadsom, wants to get into Article 50 straightaway. If she does she will be committing political suicide. An ill-prepared negotiating team, fighting against experienced Eurocrats with time entirely on their side, is unlikely to come up with anything remotely like the wonder-deal that Leave voters are expecting.

It is sad to see a country in such political, economic and emotional turmoil. That it has been caused by a split in one political party which resulted in an ill-conceived and hopelessly managed referendum, where the electorate voted on the basis of fear and a rich bunch of lies, is nothing short of disgraceful. 

Maybe the whole affair is no more than a real life version of that beloved British institution, the pantomime. When, if ever, will we get to cheer the Dame?

Allan Hilder