While the presidents of both the European Commission and the European Parliament have called on Britain to invoke Article 50 of the EU treaty to start its withdrawal from the bloc, it may be a while.
The referendum is only advisory. Parliament, where two-thirds of lawmakers want Britain to remain in the European Union, is sovereign. David Cameron has left the decision to activate Article 50 to his successor. He or she will almost certainly want parliamentary approval. Politicians will be reluctant to ignore or overturn the referendum result, but they may be willing to complicate Brexit by laying down conditions for the negotiations, for example, by insisting on access to the single market.
The Brexiteers are badly divided on this issue. The anti-European faction carried out a highly successful guerrilla war against the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty in the 1990s. They did not block it, but they did delay it. Pro-European lawmakers, with their overwhelming majority in the House of Commons, may decide it’s time for payback.
The Parliament in Westminster may not be the only one stalling Britain’s exit. Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon has threatened to veto a withdrawal from the EU in her assembly. It appears this could only be avoided by amending the Scottish devolution legislation (although the constitutional lawyers are arguing this one out), another lengthy parliamentary procedure.
The new prime minister may even decide to call snap elections, which would give the British people the chance for a rethink.
In any event, it is possible that the United Kingdom may not formally start the process of leaving the EU until the end of the year. By then, with parliamentary and presidential elections coming into view in France and Germany, its allies may be only too happy for Britain to hold off on the decision for a while longer.