Will They Really Leave, and How?

Theresa May
Theresa May; drawing by James Ferguson

Thirteen weeks after the British referendum on EU membership of June 23, it is still too soon to know what its consequences will be.1 Westminster closed down for the August recess and the new prime minister, Theresa May, took a fortnight’s holiday in Switzerland. Three of Brexit’s most prominent supporters—Boris Johnson, David Davis, and Liam Fox—have been charged with securing the UK’s departure from the EU. But since they appear to have given no previous thought to the matter and are deeply divided in their views, it will take them time to agree on just what sort of future relationship with Europe they want to achieve.

May has already said that she will not invoke Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, declaring the UK’s intention to leave, before the New Year, and despite clamor by the more intransigent wing of the Leavers, she may delay the decisive step until after the French and German elections of 2017 and possibly even later. She might call a general election herself. If and when Brexit does happen—it is not absolutely certain that it will—the immensely complex task of disentangling the country from its European commitments, revising forty years of EU legislation, and establishing new relationships could take many years and absorb a huge amount of administrative time, legal argument, and public money.2

Seen in historical perspective, the result of the referendum was only too predictable. Ever since its refusal in 1950 to join the Schuman plan for a European coal and steel community, Britain’s relationship with successive projects for European union has been ambivalent, halfhearted, and sometimes positively hostile. The UK had emerged victorious from World War II with its empire intact. Europe’s postwar problems were not Great Britain’s. By 1961, however, the empire was on the way to extinction. Alarmed at the prospect of a world divided into “the Russian sphere, the American sphere and a united Europe of which we are not a member,” Prime Minister Harold Macmillan applied to join the European Economic Community (EEC). The bid was twice vetoed by Charles de Gaulle; only at the third attempt did Edward Heath in 1973 secure British entry.

Even then, there was a continuing concern to retain the “special relationship” with the US, to maintain ties with the Commonwealth, to hold on to “sovereignty,” and to function as a world power “punching above its weight.” The Labour Party took a long time to shed its conviction that the EEC was a capitalist club, while the Tories grew increasingly suspicious of its social legislation.

During the 1980s the Thatcher government established the UK’s reputation as the EEC’s most reluctant and unconstructive member. Britain’s halfway position became obvious in 1992, when in the Maastricht Treaty creating the European Union, the UK opted out of the single currency and the “social chapter” (which allowed majority decisions on social policy). By this time the…

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