Can Europe Make It?

After the Brexit referendum – four political impacts to watch for

While a vote for ‘Brexit’ will create by far the biggest waves, whichever way the vote goes on June 23, there will be political fall out to contend with. Here are just some scenarios:

Kirsty Hughes
4 June 2016

PA images/Daniel Leal-Olivas. All rights reserved.The outcome of the EU referendum remains too close to call. The latest ‘poll of polls’ puts ‘remain’ on 51% and ‘leave’ on 49%. With turnout expected to have a big impact on the final result – ‘leave’ voters being more likely to turn out than ‘remain’ voters – this size of lead is surely deeply alarming for Cameron, and the rest of the ‘remain’ side, in the final stretch of the campaign.

While a vote for ‘Brexit’ will create by far the biggest waves, whichever way the vote goes on June 23, there will be political fall out to contend with.

If it’s a vote to Remain:

(1) UK less influential than before

The UK has lost substantial influence in the EU over the last decade, most recently not playing any role in handling either the refugee or the euro crisis, revelling rather in its opt-outs.

As Cameron’s February EU deal gets implemented, on the back of a ‘remain’ vote, this loss of influence will surely continue. The UK will no longer be committed to closer political union (the opt-out from ‘ever closer union), and will be able to discriminate on a temporary basis in terms of benefits for EU citizens who come to work in the UK.

The idea suggested by some that Cameron will step up to a leading role in the EU with some key new initiatives after a ‘remain’ vote looks like pure fantasy. The EU’s leaders will continue to wrestle with the refugee crisis, with Greece’s crushed economy, youth unemployment and the failing policies of austerity. These are all areas where the UK has simply opted-out or taken a back seat.

Any major new EU initiative would also surely imply closer political cooperation – which the UK has now opted-out of. And which the bruised ‘leave’ campaigners in the Tory party and in UKIP will surely be watching for like hawks.

The UK’s future in the EU will be as a semi opted-out, on the sidelines, low influence member state.

(2) Political fall-out for the Tories, England and Scotland

If all four parts of the UK vote for ‘remain’, then the political effects will be the easiest to handle.

If the ‘remain’ vote is quite close, the ‘leave’ crowd may want to hold out for a second referendum in the future, but the chances of that would look unlikely. The Tory party will surely have a summer of recriminations and possibly a leadership challenge but Cameron should be able to surmount that.

But if England is kept in the EU by ‘remain’ votes in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, then there will be both immediate and longer term political fall-out.

If England votes 51% or 52% to leave but are kept in by strong ‘remain’ votes in the other three parts of the UK, the recriminations within the Tory party will be much sharper, and the debates more intense both over leadership and over a putative second referendum in the future. Such an outcome is also likely to be quite close – if the rest of the UK outvotes England, the UK-wide results could be as close as 50.5% to remain against 49.5% to leave.

English euroscepticism will have a new cause – ironically a cause where they may find themselves receiving the odd sympathetic comment from the SNP at England’s inability to determine its own future.

There is potential fall-out for Scotland here too. If and when Scotland holds a second independence referendum, perhaps around 2021, if it were successful, then Scotland moving to independence would not only break up the UK, but would surely lead to demands in England for a new EU referendum.

The voices in Brussels that spoke out in 2014 with (unreasonable) threats of Scotland having to go to the back of the queue to re-join the EU, can be expected to do so again even more strongly if an ‘indyref2’ might also then take England out of the EU after all.

If it’s a vote for Brexit: 

(3) The EU will want to move quickly:

The EU’s leaders will have a new priority, if it’s a vote for Brexit, along with their existing top challenges from refugees to the eurozone. It will be a challenge of how to manage the political shockwaves in the short and in the medium term.

Apart from rapid immediate statements about the strength of the EU and moving forwards with more political integration, the EU’s leaders will want to manage the UK’s departure as rapidly as possible. While the Lisbon Treaty allows two years for exit talks, it is highly unlikely the UK’s new relationship with the EU could be agreed in that time.

But what could be agreed would be a few key transitional arrangements – not least for existing EU businesses and citizens based in the UK, and UK businesses and citizens based in the EU.

The EU will not want or need a departing UK still in the European Council for several years after it has made its Brexit decision. So its aim is likely to be for the UK, given these transitional deals, to leave the EU after two years, with any new Norwegian, Swiss or Albanian-type option then negotiated over several subsequent years.

While some EU leaders may want to show other countries that leaving has costs, it equally won’t be in the EU or UK’s interests to have protracted conflict or bad-tempered negotiations in terms of handling fall-out, so talks are likely to be tough but not catastrophic.

(4) UK political and constitutional crisis:

If the UK votes for Brexit, there will be both political and constitutional crises. It is highly likely that any vote to leave the EU will be in the face of a strong vote to remain in Scotland (quite likely over 60% supporting remain – depending on turn out), and a remain vote in Northern Ireland, with Wales probably quite close.

David Cameron will surely have to resign in the face of a Brexit vote, leading to a Tory party leadership campaign, and possibly to wider calls for a general election.

Whoever becomes Prime Minister will have a mandate for Brexit but not for what sort of future relationship, the UK wants to negotiate with the EU. So a wider UK debate on that will still be needed. Meanwhile, the House of Commons has a majority of MPs who support remaining in the EU – will they go along with the Brexit vote?

If turnout is low – say 45% or less – and the vote very close (say 50.5% for ‘leave’), will some start to argue for a second referendum, not least if Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all voted ‘remain’? Yet even on such a close vote, England would have voted ‘leave’ by 53% or more, so calls for a second referendum would lead to a major outcry in England.

In Scotland, there will equally be an outcry at England being able to take it out of the EU against its will. Whether there will be a rapid second independence referendum is an open question. Polls so far suggest a Brexit vote would increase support for independence but only by a few per cent. Whether an actual Brexit vote will have a much bigger impact on Scottish voters’ views will be watched closely by the politicians.

But if Scotland doesn’t move rapidly to an indyref2, it may well move to challenge the Brexit process constitutionally and legally – EU policy is not devolved but the primacy of EU law is in the Scotland Act, and much EU legislation is passed by the devolved administrations. Holyrood could refuse any amendment to the Scotland Act and could refuse to repeal or amend the wide range of EU acts it has passed.

A blocking and delay strategy might have considerable support in Scotland and would create a major political and constitutional crisis between Holyrood and Westminster.

Whether the Welsh or Northern Irish assemblies might also participate in constitutional or political challenges, depending on the votes there, is less clear. But the political impact in Northern Ireland will be very big – both in terms of the strong differences in voting intention, with nationalists likely to vote ‘remain’ strongly, and Unionists likely to be on the  ‘leave’ side and in terms of relations with the Republic of Ireland, not least the fact the EU’s external border will run between south and north.

Where will this political and constitutional uproar leave the Labour party? What will Corbyn say on whether to respect a marginal victory for ‘leave’ or to go for a second referendum? Will Labour call for a new general election (while it is still lagging in the polls and deeply divided in the parliamentary party)? Will Scottish – and UK – Labour take a new, at least more open stance on Scottish independence? Or will Labour just stand to one side, criticising the Tory disarray but offering no solutions.

‘Leave’ or ‘remain’, the political impacts of the EU referendum – within the UK and in the UK’s relations with the rest of the EU – will resonate for years ahead.

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