Vote Leave

A sense of denial permeates the corridors of power in Brussels as the June 23 referendum on British membership of the European Union (EU) nears. Communications staff are rumored to have been banned from using the word “Brexit” – the common neologism for a ‘leave’ vote. Ask any official about contingency plans for such an outcome, and the answer is unequivocal: there is no Plan B.

While it is understandable that officials in the E.U’s de-facto capital do not want to consider the political and economic ramifications of a difficult divorce, the reality is that Brexit would at the very least open up a long and difficult negotiating period and years of uncertainty.

Here is what we do know: in the event of a ‘leave’ vote, Britain must promptly notify the E.U. Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – the equivalent of the E.U’s constitution – allows for a two-year period in which the terms of the leaver’s exit are negotiated. During this time Britain would no longer be able to take part in any E.U. decision-making, and any exit agreements must be approved by all 27 remaining E.U. nations and the European Parliament. Then after Britain’s formal exit, fresh negotiations could begin on any new trade deals.

And here is what we don’t know: how any of this will actually work in practice.

“It has never happened before so nobody would be able to rely on any precedent,” says Chris Bickerton, a lecturer at Britain’s Cambridge University and author of The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide. “The Treaty of Lisbon was drafted with the idea that [Article 50] would not be used, and to make it pretty hard to exit in a smooth way… it simply has not been done before so things will be made up as they go along.”

In the days after a ‘leave’ vote, the European Parliament and ministers from other major E.U. powers would probably meet to formulate their response to the biggest blow yet to the union. A summit of E.U. leaders is already scheduled for June 28/29, five days after the vote, and they would be looking to minimize the impact on financial markets and the risk of contagion to other Euroskeptic countries.

A divided British government meanwhile would need to somehow unite on a negotiating position, and decide what sort of relationship they wanted with the E.U. in the future. Would they still want access to the single market? What status would they want for the two million E.U. citizens currently employed in Britain, and the equivalent number of Britons working elsewhere in Europe? What sort of trade deals would they wish to pursue? These proposals would then be put to the other 27 E.U. members — who may not be inclined to play ball.

“I don’t think they will be disposed to go out of their way to do Britain any favors,” says Richard Corbett, a Member of the European Parliament for the British Labour Party and a ‘Remain’ campaigner. “Why would you go out of your way to help a member who has just walked out slamming the door?”

Donald Tusk, President of the European Council and one of the most senior E.U. officials, warned this week that after a Brexit it would take at least seven years to try and forge a new relationship between Britain and the E.U. “without any guarantee of success.”

Beyond the practicalities, European leaders are terrified that a ‘leave’ vote will embolden Euroskeptics and prompt similar moves elsewhere within the bloc. Increasingly popular Euroskeptic parties in The Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and France have called for either a referendum on leaving the E.U. or a renegotiation of their relationship.

“If the U.K. leaves everyone will be asking who is next,” says Bickerton. “This referendum is not some uniquely and quixotic British affair – it is the tip of an iceberg and the iceberg is growing sentiment that the E.U. is not doing its job and people are unhappy with it.”

This is where some countries are formulating their Plan B. European diplomats have ruled out a last-minute deal to keep Britain inside the E.U. if its citizens vote to leave. But France and Germany– who along with Britain are considered key powers in the union – are in talks to try and come up with a unified response to stop the bloc disintegrating.

The problem is they themselves are not unified. France traditionally favors greater integration among the E.U. nations, and especially the 19 members of the euro single currency, and bristles against the austerity regime pushed by Germany.

Germany, however, would not be eager to bring its neighbors closer together in the aftermath of a departure. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble made clear in an interview with Der Spiegel magazine that a push for further integration would run counter to the message sent by any vote. “This would be crude,” he said. “Many would be right in asking whether we politicians have still not understood.”

So the resulting Franco-German plan is likely to be a watered-down pledge on greater cooperation on security and defense which will be unlikely to please the more ardent Euroskeptics, Bickerton says.

And while a ‘leave’ vote would be a disaster for the EU, a ‘remain’ vote would not be painless. The British Prime Minister David Cameron in February agreed with E.U. leaders on a package of reform, but that still needs to be approved by the European Parliament.

And the debate about the future of the E.U. and dwindling public trust will not simply disappear, no matter what the stubborn eurocrats in Brussels want to believe. Whatever the result on June 23, sticking with Plan A may no longer be an option.

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