The final countdown to next week’s landmark “in-out” European Union referendum in Britain is now under way, with a series of recent polls indicating that sentiment is moving toward “leave”.
With the result of the June 23 ballot still highly uncertain, politicians and financial markets are actively exploring the ramifications of two key scenarios if Britain votes to exit the EU.
The implications of a leave vote will depend, in part, on whether there is a strong vote to exit (55% or more of the vote), or a much narrower vote (53% or less). Both scenarios could trigger significant political and economic turbulence, and most likely force the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron only a year after his landmark general election success last May, winning the first majority Conservative government for more than two decades.
Although the path forward from a strong vote to leave is relatively clear-cut, there is significant uncertainty about what may arise from a more marginal vote to leave. For although many voters believe that the latter outcome will definitely lead to Britain leaving the EU, the reality may be more complicated.
In the event that Cameron does resign in a marginal “vote to leave” scenario, it is far from clear whether he, as outgoing prime minister, would trigger article 50 of the EU Treaties, which is the formal mechanism for bringing about the withdrawal process from the Brussels-based club. Instead — and given the massive stakes at play — he may leave this decision to his successor as Conservative leader and prime minister, who would be selected in an internal leadership contest that may not be finalised until later this year.
The favourites to win such a race would be former London mayor Boris Johnson and other key exit supporters, including the justice secretary, Michael Gove. But the prospects of some who favoured “remain”, including the home secretary, Teresa May — who has largely stayed out of the referendum fray — and, potentially, the chancellor, George Osborne, cannot be dismissed.
Once a new leader is in place, he or she will face a momentous decision that may take place in a context of significant economic volatility and political angst. In these circumstances, a second EU referendum in coming months could not be completely ruled out, not least if European partners make positive overtures and the new prime minister believes there is potential scope to cut a “better deal” with Brussels.
There are numerous precedents for such “second-bite” referendums on key issues relating to the EU.
Most recently, for instance, the Irish electorate voted overwhelmingly in 2009 to endorse the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, only 16 months after having initially rejected it.
Although both the remain and leave campaigns dismiss talk of a second referendum, Johnson (who, polls indicate, is most likely to become the next prime minister, especially in the event of an exit vote) had previously indicated his support for this approach. But such a strategy would be a key risk for him or whoever becomes Cameron’s successor, and this would give much pause for thought as there are no guarantees that such a second vote could be won, given that many pro-leave supporters would be furious and cry foul.
In this scenario, therefore, it is quite plausible that the new prime minister would seek to engineer a general election if he or she believes the outcome would be favourable, potentially still this year, to try to secure a strong electoral mandate.
Although the current Parliament theoretically runs to 2020 under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, the new Conservative leader would be in a strong position to challenge opposition parties to support him or her in calling an early ballot, given the change of prime minister and the potential gravity of the situation facing the country.
Compared with this marginal vote- to-leave scenario, the circumstances of a strong vote to leave would be clearer cut. With 55% or more of the ballot, the result would have more clarity and the prospect of a second referendum could be extinguished in the near term, with Cameron under intense immediate pressure to resign as prime minister.
Although a strong vote to leave would most likely result in article 50 of the EU Treaties being eventually triggered, Cameron (presuming he resigns) may potentially prefer to leave this to his successor to undertake, given that the new leader would head Britain’s exit negotiations with Brussels.
In these circumstances, the United Kingdom would have a two-year window to complete the withdrawal process, a timeframe that can only be extended with the unanimous consent of all the other members of the EU.
Such exit discussions would be immensely complex and potentially very difficult. So, before what could prove a mammoth undertaking, the new prime minister may well choose in this scenario to try to engineer a general election to give him or her a stronger mandate to win the best possible outcome in what is, in effect, a 27-1 negotiation with EU partners.
A final complicating issue here is that the terms of any eventual exit negotiation deal with the EU would have to be approved by the UK Parliament. Currently, however, a significant majority of MPs — including about half of Conservative MPs, and most opposition MPs too — favour remaining in the EU. So, whether such an exit deal could ultimately get through Parliament is far from certain, and this could prompt further political uncertainty in the medium term.
Taken overall, both a strong or a marginal vote-to-leave result could trigger significant political and economic turbulence, including the resignation of Cameron as prime minister. If there is a marginal vote for exit, a second referendum cannot be completely dismissed, especially if the result of the ballot prompts significant economic volatility.
Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE Ideas (the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy) at the London School of Economics.
EU divorce may place hard-won peace at risk
The “leave” campaign in the United Kingdom ahead of the European Union referendum has advocated isolationism and retreat from the responsibilities of being a major European power. It views Europe as a burden, ignoring history and geopolitics. The Brexiters’ approach is potentially harmful for the country and the rest of Europe.
To start with, Brexit is bound to have a significant impact on the country’s international standing. It is hardly a coincidence that United States President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have publicly called for the UK to remain part of the EU.
As these countries largely view the UK as their main gateway to European markets, any change in its status would affect them economically. Thus, Brexit could lead to Britain’s decline in world affairs because the country would lose the value-added position it has with distant allies. To make matters worse, a vote to leave could trigger a second Scottish referendum if a majority of Scots opt to remain in Europe. Such a development would certainly damage the image of the UK as a great power.
Moreover, the secession of Scotland could encourage other independent-minded regions, such as Catalonia or Flanders, to pursue similar paths. What good can come out of this disunity? Only uncertainty and political introspection.
Recently, the “remain” camp has brought into the debate the geopolitical effect of a leave vote. In an era of economic globalisation, discussing geopolitics sounds anachronistic and fear-mongering.
But the “Bremainers” are right. For centuries, Europe was a continent plagued by conflict and instability. Tens of millions died from war and mass killings.
The biggest achievement of the EU is not the single market; it is the establishment of a community of democracies that collaborate in a peaceful environment — so much so that it is unthinkable to imagine French and German soldiers killing each other today.
But this is not the “end of history” for Europe, as political scientist Francis Fukuyama once predicted. The wars in ex-Yugoslavia, the annexation of Crimea by Russia, and the Ukraine conflict have shown that peace cannot be taken for granted in the Old Continent.
Furthermore, the rise of far-right parties in many European countries has brought back bitter memories. Only recently, the presidential candidate of the Austrian right-wing populist Freedom Party called for the “return” of the German-speaking South Tirol — an Italian province — to Austria.
Historically speaking, Britain has played a paramount role in European security. It has acted as an offshore balancer whenever a continental power sought to establish hegemony.
Put simply, Brexit would constitute a historical anomaly for a country that has sacrificed so much for a peaceful and prosperous Europe.
Boris Johnson compared the EU with Hitler, but it is useful to remember what happened back then. By July 1940, the German army had occupied France and most of Western Europe. The dark forces of Nazism had triumphed over freedom and democracy. During what Winston Churchill called “the darkest hour”, namely the period between the fall of France in June 1940 and the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Britain stood alone against the Axis and faced an unspoken dilemma: to negotiate again with Hitler or to fight back and help its friends.
The British people wholeheartedly decided the latter. Thousands of young British men died to liberate occupied Europe. The geopolitical destiny of the UK is tied, for better or worse, to the rest of Europe, if only for reasons of proximity.
Therefore, Brexit will not serve the interests of the British people. Far from it. More importantly, Great Britain has a moral obligation not to abandon Europe and its numerous friends and allies.
Despite its structural weaknesses, the EU is the best guarantee for peace and this is something that British voters ought to remember. — Emmanuel Karagiannis/News24 Wire/Al Jazeera
Emmanuel Karagiannis is a senior lecturer at King’s College London.