How will the British referendum on Europe eventually lead to the country exiting the EU?

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Answered by: James, An Expert in the European Continent Category
The result of the British referendum on Europe is in — and despite the clamoring of politicians of every stripe and party allegiance, the message was emphatic: the people voted to leave.

Unfortunately, for the body politic of Great Britain, the referendum is just the beginning of a long process that will, ultimately, lead to the decoupling of the European Union from this one-time favored member state.

But just how will this process proceed? Well, according to the Lisbon Treaty — effectively the agreement that defines the constitutional arrangement of the entire European Union — it can only happen in one way: by the triggering of something known as Article 50. However, judging by the cacophony of the media and its political commentariat, the prospect of Article 50 being invoked appears more akin to a looming national disaster than it does the outworking of a minor bureaucratic procedure buried somewhere deep inside the impenetrable reams of European constitutional law.

And yet, the significance of Article 50 should not be underestimated. It has never, ever, been invoked; and, in reality, it was never meant to be. No country has left the European Union (or its forebear, the EEC) in its nearly 60 year history, and the prospect of Britain leaving now throws up a whole raft of existential dilemmas for the trans-continental political experiment.

Even so, the brinkmanship has begun, as various national leaders around the EU seek to harry and corral their British contingent into making swift their decision on Article 50 - perhaps in a bid to scare and confuse them, or as a kind of reverse-psychology maneuver, intending to get the political establishment there to somehow overturn the election result.

But the fact still remains: the British referendum on Europe returned a mandate to the UK parliament to seek an exit from the EU, and any reversal of that democratically sanctioned position risks plunging the country into a constitutional crisis unseen and unprecedented in a nation that prides itself on its relatively bloodless modern political culture.

So what will happen in the coming months? Nothing, probably. It isn't incumbent on the ruling party to invoke Article 50 at any point in the near future; in fact, it is politically expedient to delay it for as long as possible. Legal challenges have already been made against the referendum result, and it is likely that there will be many more if those first few don't succeed. Practically the entire party political apparatus, on both the government and the opposition sides of Parliament, are against leaving the EU, and powerful and influential lobby groups and business leaders share that position too.

The position of stalemate suits many of the players in this game. For if Article 50 is invoked, that is the end of British participation in the European Union. Although once triggered, it will still be a number of years until the country formally leaves, it really is a crossing of the Rubicon event. There is no going back. Everyone knows this, and everybody is scared.

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