What happens next with the Brexit vote?
London : With Britain choosing to leave the EU in a historic referendum, it faces the prospect of a Conservative Party leadership contest and a long and hard road of negotiations between the UK and its leading trade partner.
The results of the referendum, which were confirmed as 51.9 per cent in favour of Brexit and 48.1 per cent against today, are not legally binding on the UK government.
However, the ruling Conservative party had promised the referendum as part of its manifesto pledge in the 2015 General Election and British Prime Minister David Cameron had repeatedly confirmed that the will of the people will be respected.
He reiterated that view in his resignation speech outside Downing Street this morning: “The British people have voted to leave the European Union and their will must be respected.”
At a practical level, what this means is he has effectively kick-started a time-line for his own exit from Downing Street, expected by October, when a new Prime Minister will now have to take the Brexit mandate forward.
The most likely candidate is believed to be former London mayor Boris Johnson, who was the star campaigner for Vote Leave and often touted as Cameron’s successor.
Cameron will chair a Cabinet meeting on Monday and soon after travel to Brussels to inform the European Council of Britain’s referendum next Tuesday and Wednesday.
However, the road ahead is anything but clear-cut, with a number of factors coming into play.
The referendum has effectively triggered the process of a massive renegotiation process during which trade issues will be at the heart of talks to thrash out exactly how Britain’s relationship with the EU will work in future – negotiations that many expect will last for years.
Quitting the EU could cost Britain access to the EU’s trade barrier-free single market and means it must seek new trade accords with countries around the world.
The EU, taken as a whole, is the UK’s major trading partner, accounting for 44 per cent of exports and 53 per cent of imports of goods and services in 2015.
Brexit has often been referred to by the British media as a difficult divorce after the break-up of a marriage of convenience.
Officially, the process involves invoking Article 50 of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, which deals with the process of exit for any member country.
This will be the first time this article will be used, and indeed, tested as the only other country to exit the EU was Greenland back in 1982, when the EU was known as the European Economic Community (EEC).
Article 50 has provision for a two-year timeframe for negotiations, with scope to extend the negotiation period if all parties involved agree.
The year 2020 has been suggested by some experts as a potential timeline, when the next UK General Election is scheduled to take place.
As Cameron stressed, “there will be no initial change in the way our people can travel, in the way our goods can move or the way our services can be sold”.
However, his resignation and the need for a new Prime Minister to take charge of the negotiations has added a bigger question mark to the process ahead.
The European Commission has already indicated that it is not willing to wait for Britain to settle its own internal party politics to start the negotiation process.
In the interests of the EU’s own future, European leaders are keen to conclude Brexit proceedings as quickly as possible to avert any further divisive referendums among its 27 other member-countries.
France has already expressed some murmurings of its own referendum.
“The UK should invoke Article 50 as soon as possible, however painful that process may be,” said Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, the executive branch of the EU.
He had warned before the vote: “Out is out”. On Saturday, the foreign ministers of the founding six member states – France, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy and Belgium – will meet to discuss the implications of the British vote.
The deal the EU had struck with Cameron after months of negotiation earlier this year, has evaporated under a so-called “self-destruct” clause triggered by the referendum.
Now European leaders want to avoid being drawn into months and years of haggling over Britain’s status, mounting pressure on invoking Article 50 instantly to set the two-year clock ticking and after that, the Treaties that govern membership no longer apply to Britain.
The terms of exit will be negotiated between EU’s 27 counterparts, and each will have a veto over the conditions.
It will also be subject to ratification in national parliaments, which means MPs from individual member countries could squash aspects in their own Parliament.
Two vast negotiating teams will be created, with the EU side likely to be headed by one of the current commissioners and the British side most likely by a new Prime Minister.
Disentangling from the union is foreseen as the relatively simpler process, with renegotiating a lucrative trade deal and establishing acceptable tariffs and barriers with the UK’s biggest trading partner seen as the toughest and most uncertain aspect.