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United Kingdom Votes to Leave: What Happens Next?

September 23, 2016
On June 23, 2016, the citizens of the United Kingdom voted to withdraw as a member of the European Union. This unprecedented move has given the EU one of the most significant obstacles that it has ever had to face. Now it is up to the UK and the EU to determine what this withdrawal will look like.

By Johnathan Sargent, C’16

Background

The UK’s membership in the European Union began in 1973 and since then it has become a crucial member, yet there have always been those who oppose EU membership. In 1975, a referendum was held to gauge public support for membership. At the time, results showed that one-third of voters were against membership.[1] Since that referendum, the opposition to membership has continued to grow. This is in part due to the view that the European Union infringes upon the sovereignty of the United Kingdom.[2]

The uneasiness surrounding the UK’s EU membership culminated in the formation of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in 1993. UKIP’s popularity continued to rise and, in 2014, it came in first place in the number of votes cast in the elections, making it the first time that neither the Conservative Party nor the Labour Party did not place first in a nation poll in over 100 years.[3] The opportunity for UKIP and those who opposed EU membership finally came when Prime Minister David Cameron and the British parliament announced a referendum on EU membership. This time the opposition was able to claim victory, albeit with a slim majority, thus calling for an end to the UK’s forty-three year membership in the EU.

This result swiftly brought both political and economic change throughout the United Kingdom. In the aftermath of the decision, Prime Minister Cameron, who had campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU, announced his intention to resign later this year. This event triggered a leadership race in the UK Conservative Party, which resulted in the election of Theresa May as not only the leader of the Conservative Party, but also as the next Prime Minister. Economically, the British economy took a hit, with the value of the pound sinking to a 31-year low and stock markets around the world taking a hit out of concern over uncertainty of the UK’s withdrawal.

How can the UK leave the European Union?

The UK’s referendum to leave the EU invokes Article 50 of the Treaty on the European Union, which concerns the voluntary withdrawal of an EU member. Article 50 states that “any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.”[4] With the referendum, the British government satisfied this requirement. The only problem is that the United Kingdom is the first state to ever invoke this article, so there is no set protocol for the withdrawal of an EU member. The only provisions provided by Article 50 is that an exit agreement must be reached within 2 years after formal notification of withdrawal, the exit agreement must be approved by a majority of the European Parliament, and the exit agreement must also be approved by the remaining members.

What will Brexit actually look like?

No one is exactly sure. However, both the UK government and EU officials have signaled a desire to begin negotiations “as soon as possible”.[5] Thousands of EU regulations and hundreds of laws will be affected once the UK leaves the EU. Prime Minister May has appointed longtime British politician David Davis to head the UK’s negotiations as the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union.[6] The President of the European Commission, which functions as the executive body of the European Union, appointed Didier Seeuws, a Belgian diplomat, to lead a special internal task force on the United Kingdom’s withdrawal.[7] However, there remains a division within the European Union on how to best handle the negotiations with some believing that the EU should negotiate harsh terms with the UK in order to deter other countries from withdrawing. Others prefer a more “gentle” negotiation process.[8]

What happens next?

Now that a new Prime Minister has been selected, the UK must formally request its withdrawal from the European Union. Once the UK formally requests its withdrawal, the 2-year time limit will begin, and the UK and EU must negotiate the terms of the withdrawal. At the end of the two years, the negotiations can be extended, but only with approval from all 27 members. Should the negotiations not be extended, then the UK will automatically leave the European Union. 

What will happen to the European Union?

As the European Union negotiates with the UK over the next two years, it will also have to reevaluate its budget, voting procedures, and hundreds of regulations that will be effected without the UK. The United Kingdom’s withdrawal also sets a precedent for EU members that are reevaluating their EU membership.

References

  [1] Nelsson, Richard. “Archive: How the Guardian Reported the 1975 EEC Referendum.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 05 June 2015. Web. 18 July 2016.

  [2] Riley-Smith, Ben. “Leave or Remain in the EU? The Arguments for and against Brexit.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 20 June 2016. Web. 18 July 2016.

  [3] Mason, Rowena. “10 Key Lessons from the European Election Results.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 26 May 2014. Web. 18 July 2016.

  [4] Rankin, Jennifer, Julian Borger, and MArk Rice-Oxley. “What Is Article 50 and Why Is It so Central to the Brexit Debate?” The Guardian. The Guardian, 25 June 2016. Web. 17 July 2016.

  [5] Bruton, F. Brinley. “Start Brexit Talks Now, EU Official Tells U.K.” NBC News. NBC, 25 June 2016. Web. 18 July 2016.

  [6] Kennedy, Simon. “U.K.’s New Brexit Czar Sees December 2018 as Likely Leaving Date.” Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg, 13 July 2016. Web. 18 July 2016.

  [7] Baume, Maïa, and Jacopo Barigazzi. “Brussels Power Struggle over Brexit Negotiations.” Politico.com. Politico, 28 June 2016. Web. 17 July 2016.

  [8] Baume, Maïa, and Jacopo Barigazzi. “Brussels Power Struggle over Brexit Negotiations.” Politico.com. Politico, 28 June 2016. Web. 17 July 2016.

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