EU Referendum: What happens if Leave wins?

(Title Image: BBC)

There’s a far greater degree of uncertainty surrounding a Leave vote than a Remain vote. Even Leave campaigners can’t agree on what a Brexit would actually look like with certainty. There’s no single plan of action and that’s the fundamental weakness of their campaign.

How would the UK leave the EU?

In the event of a Leave vote, the UK Government would activate Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty by notifying the EU Council of its intent to leave the union.

Negotiations would then begin on the details of “Brexit”, with the UK excluded from the respective internal EU discussions and votes. The process would take at least two years (there’ve been suggestions it could take up to seven years) with the UK remaining an EU a member in that time.

Once the details are ironed out, a withdrawal agreement/treaty would likely be signed off by the UK and each EU member state; Greenland’s withdrawal from the EU (whilst being a constituent country of Denmark) in 1984 was ratified in a special treaty, for example.

What would happen?

We don’t really know. Nothing on this scale has happened in the EU’s history although the mechanisms are relatively straightforward (as outlined above).

There’s a slim chance the UK won’t leave the EU even if there’s a Leave vote. No referendum in the UK is legally or constitutionally binding. They’re all consultative and the UK Government and Parliament has the right to ignore the result….ironically because of parliamentary sovereignty – something Leave campaigners argue has been eroded. It’s just that if there’s a Leave vote the UK Government will be unable to ignore the will of the electorate without committing political suicide.

The Three Main Scenarios

Splendid Isolation – The UK withdraws from the EU and decides not to have any further involvement with European affairs: no free trade deal, no participation in any form of pan-European organisation (except the likes of UEFA). The UK would have a status similar to Russia or the British Empire in the 19th Century and would be on the verge of isolationism. It’s a British nationalist’s wet dream as the English Channel would, metaphorically-speaking, become more like an ocean. Even the most arch-Brexiter would still want some sort of trade relationship with the EU at the very least, so this vision is confined to the far-right and crypto-imperialists.

The Norwegian/Swiss Model – The UK would remain part of the European free trade area (EEA) but without being a member of the EU itself. The UK would, however, still have to make a contribution to the EU’s budget (though it might be less than current contributions) and apply EU directives and regulations without having any input into how they’re drafted. Also, poorer parts of the UK would no longer be able to access EU structural funding, while farmers wouldn’t have access to things like farming subsidies – unless both were replaced by the UK Government.

A Tailored Free Trade Deal – This is an option in-between the two other ones and seems to be the one most favoured by the likes of Boris Johnson. The UK would negotiate a stand alone free trade agreement outside of the EEA similar to the controversial TTIP proposal. It means options like curbs on free movement can be negotiated. The problem is these deals often take a very long time to complete, often ranging from 8 to 10 years (sometimes longer). In the interim period, the UK wouldn’t have access to the single market, meaning tariffs could be put on British (and Welsh) exports.

Other Possible Impacts of a “Brexit” :

I’ve already discussed some of the more immediate economic, social and political impacts in previous posts, but there are plenty of perhaps overlooked areas that would be impacted by a Brexit.

The UK fishing industry could enter a growth period – With the possibility of Common Fisheries Policy regulations being lifted there could be a boost for fishing, though some sort of stock control would need to remain in place for the industry to remain viable in the longer term. Repeats of the 1970s “Cod Wars” – though this time with EU-registered vessels – shouldn’t be ruled out either.

Travelling to mainland Europe could become more expensive – There’s a Common Aviation Area which has created a single market for airline services and liberalised the use of airports in EU member states. This keeps operating and passenger costs down and has enabled the low-cost airline market to expand. Outside the EU, flight prices could go up (but won’t necessarily), as could travel insurance for UK citizens as it’s not guaranteed that UK citizens would be able to access free or reduced cost health care under the European Health Insurance Card.

British immigrants in other EU countries, particularly the elderly and chronically ill, might decide to return home – If they lose the right to permanently reside in EU member states without restriction or receive free/reduced cost health care they could come back. They’ll want to move somewhere quiet, by the sea with low living costs. Guess where they’ll go. Guess which NHS and social care system will be picking up the slack. If you think the Costa Geriatrica is bad now….

Tuition fees could rise – The EU is an important source of funding for major university research projects, including the likes of the recently-opened Cubric at Cardiff University and the new Swansea University campus. Also, at the moment EU students pay the same fees as a native would, but if they no longer did or found it more difficult to study in the UK, and if EU funding dried up, universities might have no choice but to put tuition fees up further to compensate.

Serious political problems in/over Gibraltar? – There’s a good chance Gibraltar, often held up as an example of “England sticking it to Europe”, will produce the most pro-Remain result of the night. At the moment Gibraltarians can come and go as they please from Andalusia due to free movement laws. Outside the EU, the Gibraltarian-Spanish border becomes a lot less porous and the Spanish (who would become one of the main powers in the EU under a Brexit) could use joint-sovereignty as a bargaining chip to secure their support for the UK remaining in the free trade area/EEA.

Fewer emerging foreign players in domestic football (and other sports) – EU free movement rules currently enable players from any EU member state to ply their trade without restriction in major sports leagues. If the UK exits this would no longer apply to youngsters and would be restricted to established internationals only. They would have to get work permits like players from outside the EU. This shouldn’t affect big clubs, but would certainly impact mid-table English Premier League sides (like Swansea City), Scottish sides and those in lower divisions (like Cardiff City). The flip side is this would benefit home-grown talent and give them greater opportunities to play.

Demands from other EU member states for their own referendum? – The rise of populist right-wing parties isn’t confined to the UK. Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Netherlands and Hungary all have the same thing, while in Germany the AfD have been on the rise for several years. A Leave vote could, under an extreme domino effect, prompt a wave of similar referendums (or demands for referendums) across non-eurozone states in particular.

A new Prime Minister and early UK General Election? – Losing the referendum would be a huge blow to David Cameron’s credibility as chief negotiator in any exit talks, as well as massively disrupting to business of both government and UK Parliament. The signs are he would be able to stay on as Prime Minister in the event of a Leave vote, but once any leave negotiations are completed I suspect there’ll be hasty Conservative leadership election and calls for a snap UK general election, probably in 2018. Though after so many Tory bridges have been burned over the last few weeks that could be a hell of a lot sooner, perhaps even months away, particularly if an emergency budget is voted down by a combination of Tory backbenchers and the Opposition.

An end to UKIP? – An EU withdrawal is UKIP’s raison d’etre and they don’t have very much to offer aside from that short of pressing for even more isolationist foreign policy. This would, obviously, have an impact on the Senedd as it would be unlikely the present UKIP group would survive a Brexit – though they would stay to see the process through – and some UKIP AMs could seek to cross the floor to the Conservatives or become Independents – though that might not happen immediately.

Can the UK (or an independent Wales) rejoin the EU at a later date?

Short answer : Yes, but it would be more difficult than at present (with respect an independent Wales).

According to Article 50, any application to rejoin the EU would be subject to procedures in Article 49. Article 49 is the process by which all new member states join, which means a formal accession treaty and negotiations that could take years.

The Article 48 route – which would involve simply adding the UK (or Wales, Scotland etc.) to the respective treaties, and is much quicker – would be closed for good. So should Scotland or Wales become independent at some point in the future post-Brexit, the process to (re)join the EU would be lengthy, not quick.

So don’t assume a Leave vote would boost the prospects of Scottish or Welsh independence. Scotland wouldn’t be able to immediately join the EU (unlike in 2014), while the likely economic hit could damage the Welsh case even more so than it does currently.