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Why the EU should slow down

Last Thursday, the United Kingdom seemed to make a clear choice to leave the European Union. But within 24 hours of the referendum, things already looked very different. By Sunday night, over three million Britons had signed a petition to ask for a second referendum on membership of the EU. There will not only be a new prime minister, but possibly also a general election in the next few months – and it is not even clear who the candidates might be, let alone the outcome. In the meantime, no one has a mandate to do anything.

In this context, European leaders are making a huge mistake by demanding that the U.K. should immediately invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty so negotiations can start and the U.K. can leave the EU quickly. Perhaps the most unhelpful intervention came from European Parliament President Martin Schulz, who said it was “scandalous” that Prime Minister David Cameron might stay in office until October.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has been a voice of reason. She is absolutely right to urge calm and patience. Some reports indicate she has been able to persuade other capitals not to pressure London to trigger the process at Tuesday’s Summit. It is not only in the British national interest to delay invoking Article 50. It is also in the European interest to wait and see if the worst outcome for everyone – that is, an actual withdrawal of the U.K. from the EU – can still be avoided.

The situation in Britain is now extraordinarily fluid. The country faces an identity crisis, a political crisis, and perhaps even constitutional crisis. It is deeply divided along geographical and generational lines. There is anything but a consensus in the U.K. that it should leave the EU. The highest priority for the new prime minister will be reconciliation between leavers and remainers – not least to prevent a break-up of Britain itself.

In this context, it may still be possible for the U.K. to pull back from the abyss. After all, public opinion may change as the potential costs of Brexit – which, during the campaign, the leavers dismissed as part of “Project Fear” – become apparent. Some of the negative economic consequences of the vote, for example an exodus of foreign investors from the U.K., will only fully unfold over the coming weeks.

In any case, at the moment there is no majority in parliament for leaving. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has suggested its parliament may seek to block Brexit too. The gap between old and young people revealed by the referendum also raises questions about the legitimacy of moving ahead with Brexit. There is an emerging consensus, which includes many leavers, that the new prime minister will need some kind of further democratic mandate to negotiate a new relationship with the EU – hence the possibility of a general election.

Even at this late stage, European leaders should do all they can to help those in the U.K. who still want it to remain, or to at least maintain as close a relationship as possible, like a Norwegian-style arrangement. The United States should also encourage European leaders to be patient. For the moment, helping means doing nothing.

The argument that EU leaders have made is that the negotiations must begin quickly to bring back certainty and stability. As Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders said, Europe could not accept a political vacuum. But the crisis the U.K. has inflicted on itself does not automatically create a vacuum in the EU unless its leaders let this happen. And far from creating certainty or creating stability, invoking Article 50 will itself set in motion a two-year process that is uncontrollable and unpredictable. Once the EU and the U.K. start talks in the framework set out in Article 50, they will become increasingly acrimonious and confrontational.

European leaders are right to be worried that the Brexit vote will lead to a Euroskeptic surge in other EU member states. But again, invoking Article 50 is unlikely to stop this surge. The only thing that can stop the increase in Euroskepticism across Europe, including in the “core,” is reform of the EU, both in terms of policy and institutions. But there is no simple blueprint for reform, not least because of the multiple geographical and political fault lines that run through “core” Europe. That means that the EU, like the U.K., also needs time.

European leaders should concentrate on this challenge while the U.K. figures out what it wants. The causes of Euroskepticism and an anti-elite populism that is not necessarily related to the EU need to be taken far more seriously than hitherto. Merkel is right to reject reaching quick and simple conclusions. The best possible answer to far-right nationalists and the Euroskeptics who claim that their countries are better off out, would be for the U.K. to decide on reflection to stay in, or at least maintain a close relationship with the EU, and for the EU to manage to reform itself.

Rosa Balfour is a Senior Fellow with GMF’s Europe program, based in Brussels. Hans Kundnani is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow with GMF’s Europe program, based in Berlin.  Daniela Schwarzer is Senior Director for Research and Director of GMF’s Europe program, based in Berlin. This article was first published by the German Marshal Fund (GMF). More information can be found at www.gmfus.org

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