What happens next for Britain and its former partners on the continent? Let’s start with what will not happen. Unlike other European nations, Britain will not have to start printing a new currency. When the UK entered the EU, it chose to retain the British pound which will continue. Stores and businesses will continue accepting euros.
On the trade and regulatory side, the actual split is still years away. One of the things you might not be hearing in the breathless coverage is that the British electorate’s vote is actually not legally binding. It will not be until and unless the British government formally notifies the European Union of its intention to leave under Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon—known as the “exit clause.” If that happens, Article 50 sets forth a two-year period of negotiations between the exiting country and the remaining union. Since British Prime Minister David Cameron has officially resigned his post and called for a new election, that clock probably won’t start ticking until the British people decide on their next leader. For the foreseeable future, despite what you read, the UK is still part of the Eurozone.
After notification, attorneys in Whitehall and Brussels would begin negotiating, piece by piece, a new trade relationship, including tariffs, how open the UK borders will be for travel, and a variety of hot button immigration issues. Estimates vary, but nobody seems to think the process will take less than five years to complete, and current arrangements will stay in place until new ones are agreed upon.
An alternative that is being widely discussed is a temporary acceptance of an established model—similar to Norway’s. Norway is not an EU member, but it pays EU dues, and has full access to the single market as if it was a member. However, that would require the British to continue paying EU budget dues and accept free movement of workers—which were exactly the provisions that voters rejected in the referendum.
Meanwhile, since the Brexit vote is not legally binding, it’s possible that the new government might decide to delay invoking Article 50. Or Parliament could instruct the prime minister not to invoke Article 50 until the government has had a chance to study further the implications. There could even be a second referendum to undo the first.
While Brexit creates uncertainty in the short-term, it almost assuredly does not mean the more apocalyptic predictions spilling forth in the press will actually come to fruition.