The entire process leading up to last week’s vote by the citizens of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union was an extended exercise in bluff calling that doesn’t appear likely to end anytime soon.
It began with a revolt among members of Prime Minister David Cameron’s fellow Conservatives -- a minority of the parliament as a whole, who pressed the case for a “Brexit” and threatened his job unless he acquiesced. To the surprise of many, Cameron did, forcing the Leave faction within his party to go all-in supporting a cause that he appeared to believe was doomed to fail.
Cameron was trying to send a message: The British people don’t actually support the Brexit option, so Conservatives would be silenced when they proved it in a referendum. That massive political miscalculation resulted in a 52 percent to 48 percent victory for the Leave party and cost Cameron his job.
However, media reports out of the UK in the days following the vote suggest that a similar dynamic was operating among many Leave voters -- like Cameron, they were trying to send a message. Theirs appears to have been one of frustration with government elites, the changing face of the UK due to immigration, and European bureaucracy. But, also like Cameron, they never expected the Leave vote to actually succeed. There has been no polling yet, but it appears possible that a significant percentage of Leave voters woke up Friday morning regretting how they cast their vote.
Over the weekend, a government website crashed under the weight of people signing an online petition to reconsider the Leave vote. As of this writing, more than 3 million Britons have signed the petition.
The next step in the move to separate the UK from the EU is for the British government to give the EU formal notice under the Union’s Article 50 that the country has decided to secede. It can take the form of a letter or speech, but it must be explicit and it must emanate from the British government itself. There is no mechanism for the EU to compel the UK to give Article 50 notice.
And crucially, there is no formal requirement that the British government do so -- now or ever, despite the results of the referendum. It was an “advisory” rather than a “mandatory” decision, meaning that Cameron or his successor could, in perfect legality, ignore it.
Now, it’s Europeans’ turn to call the bluff of the Brits, and some wasted no time issuing calls for a rapid Article 50 declaration. It was rather like an annoyed adult looking at a child who has threatened to hold his breath until he gets what he wants, and saying, “Okay. Do it.”
“This process should get under way as soon as possible so that we are not left in limbo but rather can concentrate on the future of Europe,” said Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Apart from the British public’s reaction, there is good reason for many in Europe to believe that the UK’s leaders never really expected to leave the EU -- even in the event the Leave vote succeeded. That’s in no small part because former London Mayor Boris Johnson, the public face of the Brexit campaign and a possible successor to Cameron, all but said so earlier this year in an article published in the Telegraph newspaper.
“There is only one way to get the change we need, and that is to vote to go, because all EU history shows that they only really listen to a population when it says ‘No,’” he wrote. “The fundamental problem remains: that they have an ideal that we do not share. They want to create a truly federal union, e pluribus unum, when most British people do not.
“It is time to seek a new relationship, in which we manage to extricate ourselves from most of the supranational elements.”
A “new” relationship, in which Britain is freed from “most” supranational elements sounds to many European leaders very much like a plan to continue enjoying many of the benefits of the EU -- like free trade -- while providing the British people with special benefits that other counties in the Union do not have, such as strict control over immigration.
Johnson on Friday quickly went before the television cameras to remind the British people -- and the world -- that there is no requirement that Article 50 notification take place immediately, and specifically warned against acting in haste.
As the process creeps forward, the next question to be answered is whether or not EU authorities will be willing to start negotiations with the British outside the process laid out within the EU charter, or will require a firm Article 50 notice first. The latter sets a two-year clock in motion, during which the UK will no longer be allowed to participate in joint EU decision making.
The stakes are great for both sides. If EU leaders are seen as accommodating Britain in an effort at appeasement, the fear is that other member countries will view a Leave referendum as the first step in renegotiating their status within the Union. For the British, the terms on which they begin discussions with officials in Brussels will be a strong signal about just how isolated the UK will be from the continent in the years ahead.