The stage is now set for the British people to vote on whether they want to remain in the European Union or to leave. Campaigners backing a Brexit would like to pretend that freedom from the meddling union is just a ballot box away and that access to European markets for the British economy can be negotiated speedily.
Many Brexit supporters claim that an à la carte arrangement can be crafted for the UK to trade with the EU and enable it to continue enjoying the benefits without the burdens. For some that includes blocking EU citizens from coming to the UK to work. But how realistic is this? And would the lack of free movement of EU citizens into the UK be enough for someone else in the EU to prevent an EU-UK agreement in the event of a Brexit?
Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty details the rules for leaving the EU. It says that a member country may give notice of withdrawal, triggering negotiations on how this will go ahead.
The negotiations can last for two years, during which time the country that has given notice temporarily remains in the EU. If no agreement is reached, the country leaves the EU without an agreement once the two years are up unless the 28 member countries, including the one wanting to leave, unanimously vote to prolong the negotiations.
A friendly exit agreement for the UK would require the assent of a qualified majority of member countries and of the European Parliament. A qualified majority of the 27 other member countries could be blocked by at least four member countries, whose total population is at least 28% of the population of those 27 countries (which is to say, 124 million people). Blocking such a deal would not prevent Brexit, but it could mean that the UK leaves the EU with no deal agreed.
If there is no agreement, the UK exits and would be outside the EU treaties exactly two years after giving notice. UK exports into the EU would be subject to tariffs and may be denied equal recognition. British products and services would be less favoured than products coming from countries that already have a trade agreement with EU. The City of London would lose its right to trade the euro and investments denominated in euros on the international markets. UK farming would lose access to its main external market and the UK would, at least temporarily, exit from Europe-wide scientific research.
Without an exit agreement, access to the EU’s markets and EU cooperation could be regained via negotiation, but only after the UK has left the EU and with no guarantee of success.
Know when to fold
An exit agreement friendly to the UK could therefore be blocked by the European Parliament or by at least four countries – for example, by two larger countries, such as France and Italy, plus two small countries. Meanwhile, any one member country has the power to block negotiations lasting beyond the two years, potentially forcing the UK to exit without an agreement. It is therefore difficult to see how a friendly exit agreement, which prevents free movement for EU citizens to the UK, could be agreed.
Without an agreement on the free movement of people, the right of British citizens to live or work in the EU would also be withdrawn if the UK cancels the rights of other EU citizens to reside in the UK.
If the referendum result is for leaving the EU, it is difficult to see how a Conservative prime minister could delay giving notice to the EU via article 50. But what if a new government, or a second referendum – as previously urged by Boris Johnson – tries to reverse a Brexit decision? Article 50 is non-committal as to whether a country could cancel its notice of withdrawal before the two years are up if it changes its mind. There are no guarantees.
In brief, if the UK votes to leave, a costly period of uncertainty awaits.