A View from Brussels

As the 23 June date for the British referendum about its future in the European Union (EU) comes closer, the EU political leadership in Brussels remains uncertain how best to support the ‘Bremain’ forces in order to avoid the embarrassing and damaging departure of one of its largest and strongest members.

None of the political leaders in Brussels or in other EU capitals want to see the UK leave, but they have learned to be cautious and show restraint when it comes to engaging in EU related discussions in Britain. Often enough they were told to stay neutral (or silent) in order not to make things worse for the pro-EU forces. But they now ask themselves whether their passive stance is a sufficiently supportive strategy for a decision of this magnitude for all partners involved – also because many traditionally pro-EU industry stakeholders in the UK have remained reserved so far, leaving a lot of momentum to the “Leave” side.

Supporting the (B)Remain Camp while Preparing for the Eventuality

The top EU leadership has clearly spoken out in favour of the UK to remain a part of the European family. Already in 2014 European Commission President Juncker has given the financial services dossier to the British EU Commissioner Jonathan Hill, and has recently asked Jonathan Faull, a top level UK EU official in Brussels, to lead the Commission’s high level Brexit task force.

Influential national political leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have clearly spelled out that they want the UK to remain, and have grudgingly accepted UK specific political concessions in an EU summit in February 2016 in order to support David Cameron. They are wary of potential Brexit copycats across Europe.

Behind closed doors, EU institutions such as the European Central Bank and the European Commission are preparing itself for the eventuality of the British voting to “leave” on 23 June. They cannot afford not to, given the enormous impact it would have on Europe – akin to the “Grexit” situation in recent years.

A View from the United States

On 22 April 2016, President Obama visited London and argued that he had a right to respond to the claims of Brexit campaigners that Britain would easily be able to negotiate a fresh trade deal with the US. He said,

“They are voicing an opinion about what the United States is going to do, I figured you might want to hear from the president of the United States what I think the United States is going to do. And on that matter, for example, I think it’s fair to say that maybe some point down the line there might be a UK-US trade agreement, but it’s not going to happen any time soon because our focus is in negotiating with a big bloc, the European Union, to get a trade agreement done. The UK is going to be in the back of the queue.”

The Only Certain Thing is Uncertainty

The overall uncertainty related to a potential Brexit is large and little is known about how the separation process between the UK and the European Union would look like in practice. Many questions remain unanswered, including the political dynamics a Leave decision would trigger within and outside the UK.

What seems certain is that if Britain does leave the EU, a multi-year separation and negotiation process will commence.

When Greenland left the European Economic Community in 1985 it took a full three years to complete – and this even though they only had a few really important political issues to solve. The UK has been part of the European Union since 1973 – thus the social, legal and economic entanglement is much higher.