Brexit occurred and it is difficult to overcome the shock and focus your thoughts on what’s next.
From a legal perspective, in my mind, the only clear thing is that nothing has yet happened and nothing will happen until Article 50 TEU is formally engaged. With Cameron leaving, the Tory leadership in the air and the Labour leadership under mounting pressure, the problem is though that the EU is going to push hard to receive the Article 50(2) TEU notification as soon as possible. Political pressure has started to mount, although Chancellor Merkel seems intended to at least soften the tone of the opening salvos by representatives of the European Institutions.
Nevertheless, the pain of waiting for an internal UK decision to pull the Article 50 TEU trigger may be too big a bullet to bite, particularly if the bleeding in the financial markets continues and there are further signs of internal destabilising pressures by Eurosceptic groups (from France, the Netherlands, Denmark… or elsewhere). In the end, for the EU, every concession to the UK in this time of turmoil is a very dangerous path—as the echoes of Le Pen’s statement that ‘The UK has started a movement that will not stop’ clearly evidence.
Reasonably, the only way to show ability to manage the situation in an orderly and effective way is to get started as quickly as possible with the negotiations leading to an Article 50(3) TEU withdrawal agreement, either upon request of the (new) UK Government or unilaterally by an EU that may well get to the limit of its patience sooner rather than later and seek ways to construct the necessary notice as served in order to force the UK to sit at the negotiating table. All legal possibilities must certainly be under consideration in different corners of the EU.
In my opinion, and strictly from the perspective of EU law, there are good arguments to consider that a prompt Article 50(1) TEU notification is part of the duty of loyalty and sincere cooperation under Article 4(3) TEU. However, it also seems clear that getting the clock ticking towards the 2-year guillotine when one of the parties is not ready or willing to negotiate may be more than counterproductive. And, more generally, it also seems clear that there is no obvious enforcement mechanism for such duty to notify (if it indeed exists) and that any attempt by the European Commission to bring the UK to the Court of Justice of the European Union would not only be self-defeating but also probably ineffective in the long run. So, all in all, it seems that EU law is very limited in its ability to overcome classic problems of enforceability of international public law when the issues that need addressing are classical problems of strategic behaviour by a sovereign state.
To complicate matters further, the situation is somewhat surreal and difficult to tackle from a legal perspective because the significant complexities of internal UK constitutional law cast a very long shadow on the ‘realness’ of Brexit and the (theoretical) possibilities to disregard the result of the referendum either at the Westminster Parliament or in the corridors of Whitehall. Moreover, as lawyers, we are in danger of falling into a fallacy of presumed effectiveness of the law as we conceive it, particularly if we forget that enforcing EU law against the UK will be particularly difficult and time-sensitive in any given scenario.
Thus, the sad reality is that, more than ever, law is now a slave of politics and the existing legal framework will undoubtedly be bent beyond recognition in order to accommodate whatever is politically feasible at any given point of the impossible to anticipate chain of developments. This creates growing frustration because the impossibility to enforce the legal framework may well lead to its disregard, which threatens to have long-lasting damaging effects on the trust in the rule of law in the UK and the EU.
Hard times for legal pragmatism, which probably advises us to stay away from the craziness of the initial developments after the Brexit referendum and save our thoughts for later, when specific proposals reach the public sphere. However, it is very hard to refrain from commenting, not least because so much is at stake.