Britain voted to leave the European Union on Thursday, prompting Prime Minister David Cameron to announce his intent to resign and sending global markets into a tailspin.
Here, Mai’a K. Davis Cross, assistant professor of political science and international affairs, who studies European politics, explains what the British exit might mean for the EU and the U.K going forward.
The highly complex—and likely contentious—process for the U.K. to withdraw from the EU will take up to two years. In the meantime, what will change? How might trade and immigration rules be affected by the British exit?
Changes in trade and immigration rules will primarily impact the U.K., not the EU, but the nature of these changes will only be determined if and when the prime minister formally invokes Article 50 of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty—the formal provision that allows member states to leave. In the meantime, the U.K. is still a full-fledged member of the EU and is obliged to continue with everything membership entails. For the EU, everything related to trade and immigration will continue as usual among member states, even after British withdrawal. Indeed, the EU may even become stronger and more integrated in these areas and others, without the historically euroskeptic U.K. frequently being a spoiler on certain key provisions that others want to pursue. And yet, while the EU may strengthen, the story is very different for the U.K.
There are at least two main scenarios: If the U.K. actually follows through with a complete exit from the EU, it will lose its current trade and immigration privileges and will start to be treated as any other third country—i.e., non-EU member. The precise terms of this withdrawal will take years to negotiate, and the complete-exit scenario will be very harmful to the health of the British economy, especially as the U.K. itself potentially breaks up. It will be more difficult for U.K. citizens to study, work, and conduct business in Europe, among other things. They will also lose their global clout as one of the leaders of a united bloc, representing more than half a billion citizens and the largest economy in the world. They would be firmly separated from their biggest import/export market and source of foreign direct investment.
At the same time, economic forecasts indicate that the only way that the British have any hope of maintaining their economic vitality is to continue to belong to the EU’s migration and trading regimes—ironically, precisely two of the main areas that galvanized the “leave” camp. As a result, economic exigency might lead instead to a partial exit scenario. The U.K. would try to negotiate to stay within the EU’s common market, but not as an EU member state, using Norway as a model. In this scenario, the U.K. will continue to belong to the EU’s market, and thus will have to abide by all of the existing rules and regulations, but will no longer have any say in how these are determined and evolve over time. Indeed, the Norwegian leadership has long realized that being integrated into the EU’s trading bloc and the Schengen border-free system, while not being an EU member, comes with major costs. If some Britons were complaining before that the EU was determining their rules, the leave camp is in for a much worse situation in this scenario. The British would no longer formally have a vote, or be able to sit at the decision-making table in Brussels, while still needing to follow all of the rules.
Some pundits have claimed that the U.K.’s vote to leave the EU could trigger other euroskeptic members like the Netherlands to hold similar referendums. How might the British exit impact the EU’s other member countries?
The British referendum is likely to set a very negative precedent for any other member state contemplating following down this path. While certain far right and euroskeptic parties have called for referenda on membership in their countries, there is little reason for the governments in power to actually go through with this. Unlike in the U.K., other EU leaders are not in the same position Prime Minister David Cameron was in when he felt forced to promise such a referendum in order to preserve his position as leader of the party, which was widely recognized as a major strategic error. Moreover, the aftermath of the referendum has clearly shown that the campaign on the “leave” side was filled with exaggerations and outright lies about what Brexit meant. Now realizing this, millions of British voters actually want to hold another referendum, especially given that the “leave” camp has no plans on how to actually orchestrate exiting the EU in a way that fulfills the promises they made. It is hard to exaggerate the many benefits that the British economy and society would lose without the EU, and it would be up to the British government now to fill that void. Many British citizens are now realizing that they were misled, and the longer this plays out, the more other EU member states will not want to go through this too. At the moment, the sentiment among Europe’s leaders is that they are determined to be an even stronger union even without the British. Indeed, holding a single popular referendum on irreversible, constitutional issues like this is often not democratic at all because the regular public can be so easily manipulated by campaign slogans and false claims.
Ultimately, it is important to remember that while some EU citizens may complain about certain aspects of the EU, wanting to improve its functioning is not at all the same as getting rid of it. And most EU citizens actually consistently trust EU institutions more than their national institutions. The big lesson for other EU member states is that it is time to stop using the EU as a scapegoat for national policy failures, and to start explaining the EU to its citizens as part of the normal national political process. After all, the EU is not just about shared benefits, but shared values.
One expert in EU law said “The Brexit vote throws into serious doubt the rights of U.K. expats to work in EU countries. Everything depends on the arrangements that the U.K. enters into with the EU after withdrawal.” In your view, what will the British exit mean for expats in the EU?
The EU certainly wants the U.K. to act quickly in invoking Article 50 so that the period of uncertainty is minimized and the EU can go on with its regular activities. These leaders have emphasized that the British referendum is about Britain, not the EU. At the same time, they want to do what they can to keep the U.K. as a strong partner, even if outside of the EU. This likely means that EU leaders will try to embrace special provisions for existing British expats working and living in the EU. The same goes for EU expats in Britain. Of course, this must still be worked out in the years ahead.
President Obama and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton urged Britain to remain in the EU, while presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump backed the “leave” campaign. How do you see the political and economic fallout from Brexit impacting the 2016 election?
The more Donald Trump associates himself with the outcome of the British referendum, the more it casts the British decision in a negative light. This is bad for the U.K., but good for the EU, whose core principles are precisely in opposition to what Trump represents. As far as the 2016 U.S. election is concerned, Trump’s support for the “leave” campaign would make it difficult for him to credibly say that he is serious about the all-important transatlantic relationship with Europe. It also re-emphasizes his earlier statements about getting rid of NATO and other forms of international cooperation. After all, the “leave” vote is about creating a much more isolationist and closed-off Britain. Backing Brexit certainly does not help Trump among the larger voting public in the U.S., and points toward a serious transatlantic rift if he is elected.