Britain voted to leave Europe, but how quickly will it pull the trigger?

Former London mayor and Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson walks outside Parliament in central London on Monday.
(Justin Tallis / AFP/Getty Images)

First, the decision; now, the dithering.

What seemed at the outset to be a conclusive public directive for Britain to leave the European Union — a 52%-48% referendum vote — is now being downplayed as almost equivocal by British politicians, including key “Brexit” proponent Boris Johnson.

Johnson, who is thought to have the inside track to succeed David Cameron as prime minister, called the majority verdict “not entirely overwhelming” in an op-ed in the Sunday Telegraph, his first extended comment on a vote that has come near to propelling him into 10 Downing Street. But he was also cautious the day after the vote, when he said there was “no need for haste” in following through on it. “Nothing will change in the short term,” he said.

Nor is Germany, the dominant state within the EU, in any rush to enter into what will probably be a tortuous two-year process of severing Britain from the European Union, Chancellor Angela Merkel indicated Monday.


“In my mind there is no way we can start even informal conversations until we get formal notification from Britain” that it wants to leave, Merkel said at a news conference in Berlin. “We’ve got to go about this one step at a time. I won’t have my foot on the gas pedal or on the brake pedal.”

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As a result, no public steps have been taken to turn Thursday’s referendum results into reality.

Yet many in Britain and Europe are also impatient to finish the job seemingly launched by British voters.


On Monday, a committee of Britain’s ruling Conservative Party stepped up the timetable for selecting a new leader to replace Cameron, who announced his resignation in the wake of the referendum and declared that the trigger for departing from Europe would have to be pulled by a new leadership.

While the transition initially had been seen as coming as late as the eve of the Conservative Party’s conference in October, a key party committee set a timetable of Sept. 2 for declaring a new prime minister.

“We think the party and the country want certainty,” Graham Brady, chair of the party’s 1922 Committee, said after their deliberations. He said nominations for the conservative leadership would open Wednesday and close Thursday.

There were others in Europe who also appeared impatient to get things moving.


“Our responsibility is not to lose time in dealing with the question of the U.K.’s exit and the questions for the 27 [remaining EU members],” said French President Francois Hollande, who met with Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in Berlin.

Before flying to the German capital, Renzi gave a speech to Parliament in Rome urging a speedy start to the process. He also said Brexit could be a golden opportunity to create an ever-closer union without Britain, which he said had impeded integration in the past.

“The EU can’t afford a yearlong discussion about the procedures for Brexit,” Renzi said. “One cannot forget the message from the British referendum. What happened in Britain could be the greatest chance for Europe… On the one hand we are sad, but it’s also the right time to write a new page in European history on what unites us.”

The battle between the go-slow and get-moving camps may reflect a recognition that either a decisive resolution or a ponderous approach will carry risks and rewards for both sides.


For Britain, a prompt invoking of Article 50 of the EU’s 2007 Lisbon Treaty would trigger an almost immutable two-year timetable for withdrawal. That would reduce the uncertainty over Britain’s economic future, which has contributed to a shattering plunge in the pound’s value to a 31-year low against the U.S. dollar, steep losses on financial exchanges, and the prospect of an extended slowdown in business investment.

But it might intensify the feeling of disenfranchisement among Britain’s younger voters and those in Scotland, Ireland and London, who voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU.

Seams within the United Kingdom have been showing ever since the vote. Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has raised the possibility that the Scottish Parliament might try to veto Britain’s split from the EU. On Monday, Angus Robertson, Scotland’s senior member of the British Parliament, declared in the House of Commons, “We have no intention whatsoever of seeing Scotland taken out of Europe…. If that means we have to have an independence referendum to protect Scotland’s place, then so be it.”

For Europe, a quick resolution of the necessary negotiations over Britain’s departure — especially if on stringent terms — would help quell movements in other EU member states, including France, for their own withdrawals.


The emerging sentiment in favor of a slow and considered process reflects a sense among many that, for all their differences, both Britain and the EU were better off together than apart and that the search for a formula that might allow Britain to maintain much of its trade relationship with the EU should not be short-circuited. Even if an ultimate British-EU split is inevitable, starting the process now would be truly irreversible.

“Germany and France are in a Catch-22,” said Brian Klaas, a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics. “If they don’t punish Britain, they face a slate of other exits. But Britain is one-sixth of the European economy and they need it to be prosperous. If they punish Britain, they punish themselves.”

One reason that the British and EU are moving carefully is that they have no choice. Article 50 lays out the only procedure for an EU member state to split from the union, and it can be invoked only by that member. To enter even informal talks would signal that neither side takes the provision — or the word of the voters — seriously.

The vote itself, however, may have delivered a politically potent statement, but not technically a mandate. It was not binding on Parliament or the government, the only entities that can invoke Article 50.


Yet the governmental authority does not even exist at the moment to launch the process. Prime Minister Cameron had pledged during the referendum campaign that the Article 50 process would begin almost immediately after a “Leave” vote. But that’s looking more like a campaign stratagem aimed at scaring undecided voters into opting to remain in the EU.

In any case, Cameron announced his resignation the day after the vote, leaving a vacuum in government leadership. The government has said that Article 50 won’t be invoked at least until a successor to Cameron is chosen by the Conservative Party.

Merkel recognizes that inescapable reality. “We’ll most likely have a new British government sometime in the fall and it will probably be up to that new government to take the next steps,” her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, told reporters ahead of Merkel’s meeting in Berlin with Hollande and Renzi, along with European Council President Donald Tusk.

The lack of any strategy for following through on the referendum results suggests that Johnson and his fellow Brexit advocates expected to send a strong signal of discontent with the EU via the vote, but perhaps not actually to win. Chancellor George Osborne, the government’s top treasury official, said Monday just before financial markets opened that Britain should wait to trigger Article 50 only “when there is a clear view about what arrangements we are seeking with our European neighbors.”


Now that the financial and political consequences of the vote are coming clear, politicians are experiencing what newspapers here are already calling “Bremorse.”

It’s still politically unacceptable to say outright that the referendum shouldn’t be honored. Instead, leading politicians are merely suggesting that not much needs to change in Britain’s relationship with its European neighbors even if it leaves the EU.

“I cannot stress too much that Britain is part of Europe and will always be,” Johnson wrote in the Sunday Telegraph. “There will still be intense and intensifying European cooperation and partnership in a huge number of fields.”

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Hiltzik reported from London and Kirschbaum from Berlin.


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5:33 p.m.: This story was updated with analysis and additional reporting from London.

This article was originally published at 8:11 a.m.