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Brexit: Where now for Britain?

Friday 24 June 2016


As part of the Mile End Institute's referendum instant analysis, Dr Paul Copeland, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at QMUL's School of Politics and International Relations, considers the next steps for post-Brexit Britain.

Britain now enters the uncertain process of exiting the European Union – something that no other EU member state has tried, with the exception of Greenland. Greenland’s exit was at a time when the European integration project was significantly less advanced; Brexit will be a complicated process.  

To exit the EU the UK will need to trigger Article 50 of the EU Treaty - this will give it 2 years to negotiate its exit and formally leave. Article 50 not only gives each member state a veto over the finally agreed exit terms, it also hands one to the European Parliament. The UK has very few friends in the Parliament, given that David Cameron took the decision to withdraw Conservative MEPs from the main centre-right block, the European People’s Party, in 2009.

There are serious choices to be made on both sides, but the EU will clearly have the upper-hand. If the EU goes easy on the UK, it may encourage other Member States to hold similar referendums. A potential result is the disintegration of the European project.

However, if the UK wants to maintain access to the Single European Market, similar to the deal Norway has, it will have to accept the free movement of people. This issue was at the centre of the referendum campaign, but is a red line for the EU. The free movement of workers represents one of the EU’s four founding principles and the EU is highly unlikely to grant the UK access to the Single Market without it.

Remaining in the Single Market will require the UK to contribute to the EU budget and implement the rules of the game. All of this without having a seat at the negotiating table. So much for ‘taking back control’.

So the UK will soon find out that it is not the mighty, powerful country it believes it is. The EU has the upper hand during the negotiations. The end result may be that the claims of the Leave Campaign, about having one’s cake and eating it too, will vanish into thin air.

The UK is already a disillusioned democracy and the referendum result is a reflection of that. But the final agreement of the UK exit is unlikely to improve the situation. Over the next few years expect more Brussels bashing – whether people buy into it remains to be seen.    

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