An open letter from a former MEP

What happens now?

Initial reactions in London and Brussels have been stark, along the lines of 'Out means Out'. Will they change with more considered reflection? As the foreign ministers gather in Berlin today and the leaders of Germany, France and Italy meet on Monday to prepare Tuesday's European Council ('summit') meeting, economic interests may have started to impinge on political considerations. It seems most likely, however, that when David Cameron arrives in Brussels on Tuesday he will find his 27 counterparts almost all singing from the same (German-language) hymn sheet.

In a statement Friday by the Presidents of the European Council, the European Parliament and the European Commission, it is made clear that there can be no further renegotiation and that the concessions made to Cameron in February are now null and void. The summit can be expected to rubber-stamp this.

The most Cameron can hope for is a period of 12 weeks for the UK to sort out the shitstorm which will now be unleashed by the most calamitous case of self-harm in Britain's democratic history. The EU Treaties leave it up to the country which seeks to leave to decide when and if to invoke Article 50, to start the formal process of withdrawal. But the continental clamour for it will be deafening. Britain's foot-dragging, wheel-spoking and taking home of wicket in recent years has drained any patience or sympathy our partners might once have felt.

And what does it mean?

I use the expression 'shitstorm' because for a modern European economy of any size the EU is like Hotel California (of the Eagles fame): 'you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave'. Britain without the single market would be a poorer country indeed.

Unless Cameron and leaders of all sides in the UK together plead 'hold your horses', Germany will press for a rapid and polite divorce on terms designed to discourage any other member state from even considering following in Britain's footsteps. Britain will be out of the European Investment Bank and will have no general or automatic right of access to the single market. It will have strictly two years to negotiate (for which in most areas read 'accept') the terms of its departure, and will not find them to its liking.

Is there any way back?

The UK's dilemma is that the vote was only technically 51.9% to 48.1%. It was far more 70-30 for Out in some parts of the UK and 70-30 to Remain in other parts. The outcome can hardly be said to represent the settled will of the UK's electorate. I do not believe that people voted for a break-up of the UK, however likely that now seems.

When France voted in 2007 by 51% to 49% to reject the EU's flagship constitutional treaty (because craftspeople feared the arrival of 'the Polish plumber'), the EU took a deep breath and decided to put the draft Treaty on ice. It was approved in 2011 in the form of the Lisbon Treaty. Here there is no Treaty involved, but nor has the process to leave the EU been triggered. Legally, this referendum was advisory, not binding.

Could the UK reconsider? If the people wants OUT yet two-thirds of MPs want IN, logic suggests an early general election with a new government subsequently seeking a new way forward. The Conservative Party may in any case prove incapable of governing in its current state. Should a no confidence vote bring the Tories down, could their disorder and Labour's woes combine and lead to a new centrist party forming, to stand against the anti-EU brigade? And if the centrists win, could they hold a second referendum? (The question on the ballot paper might perhaps read "Is your indecision final?')

Back to earth with a bump

Like Major Tim Peake, the UK may well come down to earth with sparks flying around its ears. The impact of the vote on sterling and on the stock markets has already toppled us from our vaingloriously proclaimed perch as 'the world's fifth largest economy'. And long awaited investment decisions could see production capacity rapidly moved elsewhere.

So fasten your seat belts, I fear we're in for a rough ride.

Graham Watson

Graham Watson formerly served as a member of the European Parliament (MEP) and leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) Group in the European Parliament. Read More