The Day After: What Happens If Britain Leaves

Leaving the EU would create a legal nightmare for Britain and it might not get as good a trade deal as it expects.

British prime minister David Cameron gives a news conference in Brussels, March 18
British prime minister David Cameron gives a news conference in Brussels, March 18 (The Prime Minister’s Office)

What happens if Britain votes to leave the European Union on Thursday? Reuters suggests this could happen in the days after:

  • In the immediate aftermath of a “leave” vote, there would likely be a negative reaction from financial markets on Friday.
  • The European Commission would convene over the weekend to discuss what’s next. It would be responsible for negotiating Britain’s exit.
  • The idea is to have a basic plan in place before markets open again on Monday.
  • Then European leaders meet in Brussels on Tuesday. Assuming David Cameron is still prime minister by then (and a Euroskeptic coup would be hard to organize in only a few days), he should invoke Article 50 of the EU treaty and trigger a two-year divorce proceeding.

Longer term, the EU will have to fill a Britain-sized hole in its budget, Reuters warns, and reassure millions of EU citizens living in Britain and Britons on the continent of their future rights.

Legal mess

British lawmakers would have get started quickly on the process of transferring EU law into British law. The Financial Times reports that the process could be excruciating.

Lawmakers could simply translate all EU law into British law with a single act but then what was the point of leaving?

More likely, they will have to go through law by law and decide which ones to make British and which ones to phase out.

Making matters worse is that EU laws and judicial decisions have been incorporated into the devolution statutes of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and the “Good Friday” Agreement of 1998 that brought peace to Northern Ireland. Disentangling all that would be a legal nightmare.

Trade deal

Britain will want to negotiate a trade deal in order to retain as much access to the European single market as possible.

Leavers argue that the rest of Europe would be foolish not to offer them a fair deal, given that Britain buys so many of Europe’s products, from German cars to Swedish furniture.

But that overlooks the political dimension. As Clive Crook has argued at Bloomberg View, while it would certainly be in the EU’s economic interest to maintain Britain’s market access, it may not be in the bloc’s political interest to do so.

Some EU governments would be happy to harm themselves slightly to hurt Britain a lot — you know, pour encourager les autres.

The EU wouldn’t want anyone to get the idea that it’s possible to have the sweet (the single market, free travel) without the bitter (paying into the EU budget, compromising with other nations). It will have to make an example out of the British.

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