Is the EU trying to scare the UK into staying in?
By Eric Maurice
There is "no way back from the Brexit vote,” German chancellor Angela Merkel said after an EU summit on Tuesday (29 June), reflecting the view of other EU leaders.
They set out a tough road ahead for the UK and the prime minister who will succeed David Cameron in September.
Dear EUobserver reader
Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.
Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.
- Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
- All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
- EUobserver archives
EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.
♡ We value your support.
If you already have an account click here to login.
Article 50, the legal framework for the exit process, will have to be triggered "as quickly as possible". Until then, there will be "no negotiations of any kind" about future relations between the EU and the UK.
The only way for the UK to discuss the post-referendum situation is to enter a two-year process that leads out of the EU.
And when talks start, there will be "no cherry-picking", EU leaders added. Britain will not be able to pick and choose from EU law.
In particular, EU leaders stressed that to access the EU single market, Britain will have to accept "all four freedoms" - freedoms of movement for goods, services, capital and people.
Many in the UK refer to Norway as a model of a non-EU country with access to the 500-million people EU market.
An EU diplomat pointed out that in this case, and in addition to the acceptance of the four freedoms, the UK would have to be a member of the Schengen free-movement area and pay a "substantial financial contribution".
Rules of divorce
In short, the EU is telling Britain that Brexit will not pay and that it will not have much choice on the conditions for its exit.
"Rules of divorce have to be set by the European Council," French president Francois Hollande summarised on Wednesday.
At the same time, Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon was meeting the leaders of the European Parliament and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.
She was in Brussels to demonstrate "the determination to ensure all options are considered to enable Scotland to remain in the EU", she said in a statement.
That includes a break up from the rest of the UK.
One source suggests that the plan in EU circles could be to avoid Brexit entirely by showing "Brexiteers" the full consequences of their vote.
"From what I see and hear, I think the plan is to wait for the notification of Article 50," a source from a member state told EUobserver.
“The plan is to help the pro-EU in the next [British] government so they don't take that step.”
The EU could also wait and hope for a snap election in the autumn where a leader would get a mandate not to implement the referendum outcome - because the vote is not legally binding - or even to organise a second referendum.
'You see what Europe takes out'
Some statements from EU capitals seem to support this analysis.
"You don't always see what Europe brings when you're in, but you see what Europe takes out when you're not in any more," Hollande said.
He said "those who love Europe the most are those who are not in”, and suggested this would be the fate of the UK.
US secretary of state John Kerry added fuel to the theory.
One day after coming back from a visit to Brussels and London to assess the situation, he said at the Aspen Ideas Festival, in Colorado, that Brexit was "a very complicated divorce" and that there were "a number of ways" to avoid it.
But for others, the idea that EU leaders would be tough on the UK in order to keep the country in the bloc is far-fetched.
"I didn't hear anything like that. If there is a plan to give a chance to the UK it is well protected," an EU official said.
He added that what the UK could expect is "a couple of years of pain" before maybe asking to come back in the EU.
"The case would be made. You need to experiment for real to see what it is like," he said.
For many member states, showing the consequences of an EU exit is an important way of countering calls for referendums by eurosceptic parties in other countries.
It would also discourage demands for exemptions or privileges from other member states.
In the UK, it would be "extremely difficult politically to backtrack on the referendum result", said Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska, a research fellow at the London-based Center for European Reform.
The only possibility would be an early election, she told EUobserver, adding that such a scenario was “politically difficult to imagine”.
Boris Johnson, who led the Leave campaign, has hinted he would not call an election, as a signal to MPs who would fear losing their seats.
If there is an election, pro-EU parties may have to promise a new referendum, or simply pledge to ignore the previous one.
"It is difficult to win an election with that," Gostynska-Jakubowska noted. "People are still not sympathetic to the EU."
In addition, she said, a two-thirds majority in the House of Commons is needed to call an election, so "it would not only be the Conservative Party's call".
Message in two directions
The Labour party, which is increasingly divided on Europe and over its leadership, would probably not vote for an early election.
Faced with political uncertainty, EU leaders sent the message that the next British government will have to decide quickly.
They did not understand why Cameron did not trigger Article 50 immediately and they must now wait to know who will be prime minister and what his or her position will be.
That is why their message "can be read in two directions", another source from a member state told this website.
"It's up to the UK to decide. It can decide that staying in is better in the end. But if it decides to leave, it knows what the conditions will be."