World

Britain's real work on Brexit starts now

Two-year process of Britain's departure from European Union started yesterday

British Prime Minister Theresa May began Britain's exit from the European Union (EU) by invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty yesterday.

With it starts a two-year process of departure - and for now, we know little about what that will look like.

When its members signed the treaty in December 2007, no one could imagine circumstances in which a nation would leave.

On one extreme, Britain could crash out of the EU without any deals on trade, migration or other substantive issues.

Or it could agree to a "hard Brexit", regaining the right to limit EU migration within its borders but losing access to the single market.

Brexit might also break the United Kingdom apart, prompting Scotland and Northern Ireland to leave.

Both voted overwhelmingly for "remain" and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has made clear that the "harder" the Brexit, the more Scotland will push for a second independence referendum.

Alternatively, things could barely change at all.

Millions of people, particularly EU nationals living in Britain or British citizens abroad, are facing colossal uncertainty.

Earlier this month, British officials were reportedly working on an interim deal that will lock current trade and migration rules in place for 10 years, extending the two-year exit path defined in Article 50.

That could have the advantage of avoiding economic shocks, perhaps even extending the process indefinitely, but it will infuriate many on both sides of the argument.

Mrs May will ultimately determine how Brexit plays out. She is a canny operator who will likely be motivated by what she thinks is politically wise, but that is difficult to determine.

A March 21 poll showed 44 per cent of respondents would vote "leave" and the same portion "remain" if the referendum were held again tomorrow. Roughly 12 per cent said they "don't know".

Those proportions have barely changed since last summer.

Some of the more fervent pro-Europeans still hope the decision can be overturned.

Two-thirds of "remain" voters now believe there should be a second referendum - a significant increase from December. But that seems unlikely, at least for now.

PROBLEM

The problem is that at the time of the referendum, Brexit meant different things to different people. The 52 per cent of the population who chose it were expecting very different things.

Mrs May's preferred option - limiting freedom of movement while maintaining access to free trade - is unlikely to be on the menu.

European leaders said both are central to the European project, and Britain cannot have one without the other.

Those stances - like Mrs May's own, which has increasingly trended towards a relatively "hard Brexit" - are opening negotiating positions and could change.

The worry for Britain is that European leaders may wish to exert a high price for Brexit to deter other states from following in the future.

The Scotland factor may also be crucial. No prime minister wants to be remembered as the one who broke the UK, a possible incentive for Mrs May to water down Brexit to keep the Scots on board.

There are signs Brexit will be less disastrous than anticipated.

The nine-month period between the referendum and the triggering of Article 50 mollified some of the more alarming predictions of economic collapse.

But the ongoing sense of uncertainty does real harm.

Millions of people, particularly EU nationals living in Britain or British citizens abroad, are facing colossal uncertainty.

The roughly 3 million Europeans in Britain must make decisions on jobs, housing, relationships and dozens of other things without any real clarity on where they will stand in as little as two years' time.

Several firms, particularly those in the financial services sector, worried about losing market access, signalled that they are considering moving jobs to mainland Europe.

Mrs May has never won an election, and she does not intend to call one until Brexit is out of the way, most likely until 2020.

That leaves her running on a mandate from Mr David Cameron. He won by pledging a once-in-a-lifetime EU referendum - but also promised that if the country chose to leave, it would be a disaster.

He delivered on the first. Mrs May will have to avoid delivering on the second.

Peter Apps is Reuters' global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. Since last year, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party.

BREXITeuropeunited kingdom