David Cameron is under increasing pressure from Europe to implement Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty that would begin the formal two-year period of withdrawal from the European Union. In his resignation speech on Friday morning he said he would leave that to his predecessor, who might not be in place before October. The Guardian today is arguing that this could be a deliberate ploy by Cameron – a pro-EU campaigner during the referendum – to pass the responsibility to whoever succeeds him, and by doing so ”Cameron has handed the next prime minister a poisoned chalice.” The Guardian report suggests this offers a glimmer of hope to the Remain supporters and that the longer it takes to trigger Article 50 the harder it will be for his successor to do so. This idea is supported by the writer and lawyer David Allen Green who wrote in a blog:
“The longer article 50 notification is put off, the greater the chance it will never be made [..]. As long as the notification is not sent, the UK remains part of the EU. And there is currently no reason or evidence to believe that, regardless of the referendum result, the notification will be sent at all.”
While this is legally feasible it is highly unlikely that the next Prime Minister will ignore the referendum vote and simply have the country remain in the EU. Under the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty it is entirely for the Prime Minister of the UK to make the decision to trigger Article 50. Until he or she does so there is nothing that the EU can do to force us to do so. They can put pressure on us, as they are, but legally they can do nothing. Unless the EU determines that the UK is in breach of Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty which allows the EU to “suspend a member if it deems it to be in breach of basic principles of freedom, democracy, equality and rule of law” the UK remains a full member of the EU until the two-year withdrawal period has elapsed. And that two-year period can’t begin until the UK Prime Minister says so.
No-one it seems is any hurry to trigger Article 50. Even Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson seem to be in no hurry, with Johnson saying that there “was no need for haste” and that “nothing will change in the short term.” According to the Guardian it seems that the Government and the Leave team want to sound out the EU, to hold informal talks ahead of triggering Article 50. The rationale being that we will then have some idea of the outcome of the formal withdrawal negotiations before we irreversibly enter them and commit the country to withdrawal within two years. Should we not get any agreement in those two years, or not the agreements we want, we simply leave the EU without them in place – a scenario that could do immeasurable damage to the UK and its relationship with the remaining members of the European Union.
European leaders are pressuring us to get on with it, to end the uncertainty and announce the triggering of Article 50. With economic uncertainty and Euroscepticism on the rise throughout Europe, they want the UK to get on with negotiations and get out so that Europe can get back to securing the future of a now damaged and weakened Union. The belief that delay would increase uncertainty has been expressed by several people in Europe over the last few days, including Donald Tusk (President of the European Council), Jean-Claude Juncker (President of the European Commission) and Mark Rutte, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands – who currently hold the rotating presidency of the EU. In a joint statement, along with Martin Schultz, the President of the European Parliament (below), they said: “This is an unprecedented situation, but we are united in our response” and said that the UK – the first sovereign country to vote to leave – would remain a member until exit negotiations were concluded, which they said, Europe expected it to “give effect to this decision … as soon as possible”
Martin Schultz, however, seems to think that Cameron will trigger Article 50 as early as Tuesday. Cameron is due to attend a European summit dinner, although he will be leaving after the dinner and not participating in the summit itself – the first-time the UK has not been at a summit in decades. Martin Schultz has said Cameron will announce Article 50 at the dinner. Frustration in Europe over the UK Government’s delaying has led to the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung to argue that if the UK doesn’t get on with it the EU could consider the EU referendum result itself as “an official wish to leave”. This is disputed as implausible, with an EU official pointing out to Reuters:
“The notification of article 50 is a formal act and has to be done by the British government to the European council. It has to be done in an unequivocal manner, with the explicit intent to trigger Article 50. Negotiations to leave and on the future relationship can only begin after such a formal notification. If it is indeed the intention of the British government to leave the EU, it is therefore in its interest to notify as soon as possible.”
Of course, sooner or later the UK will trigger Article 50 and sooner rather than later is certainly what the rest of Europe want us to do. However, if David Cameron does leave the decision to his successor then things could drag on a long time, which is unlikely to help anyone in the long term and has the potential to cause even more economic and political damage here in the UK and abroad and alienate the millions in the UK who voted to leave the EU on Thursday.