There seems to be some confusion in the UK about what to do now that the referendum on leaving the European Union resulted in the Leave side winning. It appears that there is a possibility that the UK may not actually leave after all. The actual process of leaving only begins when the government invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty that forms the basic structure of the union and there seems to be hesitancy on both sides about triggering it.
As Robert Mackey writes, the referendum was an advisory one and not binding on the government. Prime minister David Cameron has said that he will not invoke Article 50 but will leave it to his successor to decide when to do so when the new leader is chosen after he resigns, which will be October at the latest.
But what is most surprising is that Boris Johnson, one of the most vociferous leaders of the Leave vote and the person seen as a leading candidate for replacing Cameron, also seems to be not keen on invoking Article 50, a move that surprised observers.
“In voting to leave the EU, it is vital to stress that there is no need for haste,” Johnson said, “and indeed, as the prime minister has just said, nothing will change over the short term, except that work will have to begin on how to give effect to the will of the people and to extricate this country from the supranational system.”
Given that the popular mandate his side had just won was summed up in a single word on the backdrop behind him, “Leave,” it seemed odd that Johnson made no mention of the fastest way to get that process started, by pressing for an immediate Article 50 declaration.
It is being speculated that Johnson thinks that the threat of triggering Article 50 might be sufficient to force the rest of the EU to grant more concessions to the UK in order to get them to stay and that this was his goal all along.
But using this kind of referendum as merely a bargaining tool seems like a risky strategy. For one thing, the rest of the EU might think that caving in to this kind of coercion would set a bad precedent for other countries. In fact, they might seek to actually punish the UK in order to discourage such moves. EU leaders, who cannot invoke Article 50 themselves, seem to be anxious to close this chapter as soon as possible and are urging the British government to do so quickly and not wait until October.
Furthermore, after firing up their supporters that belonging to the EU was destroying their status as a sovereign nation able to decide issues for themselves, staying in would seem a like a major betrayal, like UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s retreat after the referendum of the promise that the £350 million that the UK was supposedly sending the EU every week would instead be spent on the underfunded National Health Service.
And that is not all.
The about-face from Mr Farage comes amid a series of U-turns from the Brexit camp immediately after results came in.
Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, who unlike Mr Farage campaigned with the official Vote Leave group, said he now believed a post-EU settlement should not result in reduced immigration.
“Chaps, look at what I said throughout the campaign: it’s all on Twitter, YouTube etc. I was for more control, not for minimal immigration,” he tweeted on Saturday morning.
If the leaders of the Leave campaign backtrack too much from the promises they made, they may face a major revolt.