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Comment 07 Jul 16

Question Mark Hangs Over Britain’s EU Departure

With the victorious ‘Leave’ camp in disarray, and no sign of any move from Britain to activate Article 50, ‘Remainers’ are calling for the June 23 referendum result to be set aside.

Marcus Tanner
British Home Secretary and leadership candidate for Britain's ruling Conservative Party Theresa May. Photo by: Beta

Almost two weeks ago since the UK’s historic vote on its future EU membership, Britons are no nearer to knowing when - or even if - their government will ever activate Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the mechanism that starts the process of disengagement.

The UK government’s refusal to name a date comes amid growing calls for it to ignore the referendum result, and threats to challenge the legality of the government taking a unilateral decision without first consulting parliament.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair is the latest senior UK politician to suggest that the British government might set aside the referendum result on the grounds that it was insufficiently clear.

The government should “take its time” and “keep its options option,” Blair said earlier this week, adding that the will of the people as demonstrated on June 23 “could change” in future.

The dramatic collapse of the “Leave” coalition since June 23 has further heartened the defeated “Remain” camp.

Many of them claim that numerous “Exiters” from the EU have since become “Regrexiters”, people who regret having voted to leave on June 23.

Leaders of the successful “Leave” campaign meanwhile have turned on each other in spectacular fashion since the champagne flowed on the morning of June 24.

No sooner was the vote won than former London Mayor Boris Johnson’s guru and sidekick, Michael Gove, denounced him as wholly unfit to become Prime Minister.

A humiliated Johnson was forced to suddenly scrap his campaign to become the next leader of the ruling Conservative Party.

However, Gove’s role in what has been called a stunning political “assassination” has damaged his own credibility as well. With political blood on his hands, few now rate his chances of succeeding David Cameron to the Prime Minister’s Downing St residence.

The third key figure in the Leave campaign, UKIP leader Nigel Farrage, has meanwhile resigned as leader of his anti-EU party, saying that he “wants his life back”.

With the Exit camp rudderless and in disarray, the Conservative Party and UK government look likely now to fall into the hands of a “Remainer”, the Home Secretary [Interior Minister] Theresa May – who stormed ahead in the first round of the party leadership ballot on Tuesday.

May insists she accepts the result of the June 23 referendum. Still, her apparently unstoppable rise to power can only fuel the uneasy feeling among Leavers that Britain’s departure from the EU could end up being parked in the political equivalent of a deep freeze.

Key figure in Europe are also watching their words very carefully. While some leaders in Spain and France, and the Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, say they want Britain to hurry up and pack its bags, the mood in Berlin and some other capitals is markedly different.

The UK Times on Wednesday quoted one of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s key advisers as saying there should be no rush.

Merkel herself told centre-right colleagues from Europe meeting in Brussels last week that they should hold their tongues on Britain’s EU future until after the summer holidays.

Merkel’s misgivings about Juncker are well known and accompany reports that Germany would like to see him replaced.

While the political winds in Britain appear to be blowing in favour of the Remainers, everything ultimately depends on the outcome of the Conservative Party leadership election race, which does not wind up for weeks.

If May sweeps into office with an overwhelming mandate from her party members and from MPs, she may feel she has a free hand to delay, or even quietly forget, plans to leave the EU.

She would be assisted in that - if she so decided - by reports that the British government machine has a chronic shortage of qualified trade negotiators needed to negotiate myriad bilateral treaties with all the UK’s major economic partners, including the US as well as Europe.

These reports say that while the UK needs to assemble a team of at least several hundred experts, Whitehall [the UK civil service] has only 40 or 50 at its disposal.

However, May’s legroom for manoeuvre will be reduced if she only narrowly wins the party leadership, and faces a strong challenge from her fiercely anti-EU main rival, Angela Leadsom.

In that case, May will have to firm up support from the Exiters and – however short she is of qualified trade negotiators - deliver a timetable for leaving the EU.

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