The voters in the UK surprised everyone, including the pollsters, by narrowly voting to leave the European Union by a margin of 51.9% to 48.1%. England and Wales voted to leave by fairly comfortable margins while Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain by even larger margin, leading some to predict that this vote may not only lead to a break with the EU but also a breakup of the UK itself. As late as the day before the vote, the Remain group had seemed to be gaining in the polls with the result that stock markets had risen in anticipation, so the victory by the Leave group came as a real shock.
One immediate political consequence has been the fall of British prime minister David Cameron who led the Remain campaign and has announced that he will step down by the time of the party conference to be held in October, bringing an abrupt end to his tenure soon after he won re-election with a resounding general election victory as recently as May 2015.
The party will have to elect a new leader to take over as prime minister. The current favorite is Boris Johnson, former mayor of London, but there will be other candidates in the race and the leadership struggle may prove to be as divisive as the Republican primary race since the Brexit issue has divided the Conservative party with about 130 MPs going against their own prime minister in favoring an exit The process of leader selection this time will be one that involves more than the MPs.
The process of choosing his successor will now begin, with Tory MPs selecting a two-person shortlist, which will then be presented to the party’s members in the country to make a final decision.
The number of party members who are eligible to vote in the final round number around 150,000 and, as can be seen when the Labour Party elected its most recent leader Jeremy Corbyn, opening up the process can result in surprising outcomes.
As for the more substantive issues involved with Britain divorcing itself from the EU, there will be plenty on uncertainty and turmoil as the process works itself out. The UK is the first sovereign nation to vote to leave and EU leaders may try to make the process as difficult as possible for the UK in order to send a warning to other nations, such as Greece, who may also be contemplating a similar withdrawal.
The UK has to negotiate two agreements: a divorce treaty to wind down British contributions to the EU budget and settle the status of the 1.2 million Britons living in the EU and 3 million EU citizens in the UK; and an agreement to govern future trade and other ties with its European neighbours.
[The president of the European Council Donald] Tusk has estimated that both agreements could take seven years to settle “without any guarantee of success”. Most Brussels insiders think this sounds optimistic.
There were early warnings of difficulties ahead. The German MEP Elmar Brok, who chairs the European parliament’s committee on foreign affairs, told the Guardian the parliament would call on Juncker to strip the British commissioner, Jonathan Hill, of the financial services brief with immediate effect and turn him into a “commissioner without portfolio”.
He said: “They will have to negotiate from the position of a third country, not as a member state. If Britain wants to have a similar status to Switzerland and Norway, then it will also have to pay into EU structural funds like those countries do. The British public will find out what that means.”
Jean-Claude Piris, a former head of the EU council legal service, said claims that Britain would get unfettered access to the single market, without free movement of people, were the equivalent of believing in Father Christmas. He said the British “cannot get as good a deal as they have now, it is impossible”.
One likely outcome of negotiations is that banks and financial firms in the City of London will be stripped of their lucrative EU “passports” that allow them to sell services to the rest of the EU.
However, on paper, nothing changes immediately. The UK remains an EU member until it has finalised the terms of its divorce and is obliged to follow all EU rules.
In theory, the UK retains the decision-making privileges of membership; in reality, power will rapidly drain away and British diplomats can expect to be marginalised in the councils of Brussels.
The UK will keep its veto in some areas, such as tax and foreign policy, but diplomats say Britain’s voice on other EU decisions, for example economy and business, will count for little.
Already right wing leaders in the Netherlands and France are calling for similar referenda. Meanwhile Donald Trump sees the Brexit vote as supporting his own anti-immigration stance for the US and Republican pollster Frank Luntz thinks that a similar populist sweep in the US could help him defy current polls that show him losing.
It will take a while to see if the consequences of this vote are as disastrous as the advocates of the Remain position claimed. Politicians now routinely issue apocalyptic warnings of what will happen if their position is rejected and it will take some time to gauge the true impact.