A divided UK voted to leave the European Union last week, and Brits are coming to the realization of what it all means.
We spoke with Daniela Schwarzer, director of the Europe Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, to learn more about what comes next. The following Q&A was edited for clarity and length.
PBS NewsHour: What happens now?
Daniela Schwarzer: First of all, the UK will have to figure out how to move forward. The referendum is nonbinding, so the prime minister will have to decide what to make of it.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has already said he will step down from office in October and that he wants to leave the decision to invoke Article 50 — that’s the clause of the EU treaty to negotiate an exit from the European Union — to his successor. So there are probably at least four months during which the UK will not start negotiating its exit from the European Union.
There is a possibility that the political meltdown in the UK moves ahead at such a pace that general elections might come up in the fall, and that could potentially delay the invoking of Article 50 even further.
The country generally is deeply divided between generations — the older people voted for Brexit, and a vast majority of the younger generation voted to stay in the EU. Also, several regions of the UK voted to stay in the European Union, like Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and London, and there are already discussions about the breakup of the United Kingdom.
The United Kingdom at this moment is in a deep political crisis, which may turn into a constitutional crisis.
If Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales voted to separate from the UK, would they need to apply for EU membership?
Schwarzer: Currently, that would be the procedure according to the EU treaty, because there’s no legal framework for a country to only partially leave, but we are really entering unchartered territory here.
There is a possibility that if this political situation continues to destabilize, a compromise could be found to keep a few regions within the European Union. But it’s too early to tell.
Could places like Northern Ireland keep using the euro as their currency?
Schwarzer: Yes. There are countries that are not part of the European Union and that de facto use the euro. But of course, every country, or part of the country, will have to decide whether it fares better with the national currency and central bank.
What happens to Americans or other foreigners working in the UK?
Schwarzer: The status of Americans wouldn’t change. What would change is if they live and work in the UK and the UK is no longer in the EU, if they want to move to the European Union it might mean new restrictions on the portability of their pension contributions or other things.
Any chance for a do-over vote?
Schwarzer: While the vote was for Brexit, in my view the exit of the United Kingdom from the EU is no done deal.
It is highly likely that public opinion changes over the coming months, because the costs of leaving the European Union are felt so clearly already now over just a few days: the currency collapse, the stock market collapse, but also longer-term developments such as the loss of value of real estate in the United Kingdom.
Some companies have already announced they would no longer invest in the UK. Some financial institutions have said maybe London is no longer the place to be.
Also, the political landscape may change and if there are new general elections this fall, voters may show they favor undoing the referendum decision. If that were so, the new prime minister would be able to consult his parliament and tell the EU that the UK does not want to invoke Article 50.
That would be a complete turnaround, but it’s not the first time in recent EU history that a referendum that had clear results did not lead to the policy that was suggested. That was true for the Greek decision to leave the eurozone — that didn’t happen either.
Is this a wake-up call for the EU to change its ways?
Schwarzer: The Brexit vote is definitely a wake-up call for the European Union and leaders around EU members, because the reasons the British decided to go for Brexit are not just exclusive to Britain. Many of the fears apply to other countries as well, such as immigration concerns, socioeconomic insecurities and the questions of identity.
That’s why the phenomenon of anti-elite parties and far-right movements can be found all around the European Union and the United States. There’s a deeper problem of democracy under the conditions of globalization.