Once Outlandish, Brexit Is a Risky Unknown but It Just Might Happen

During the Eurocrisis the term "Grexit" circulated in world news, referring to the idea of Greece ceasing to use the Euro as its currency and maybe even leaving the European Union. So far, it's proven to be nothing more than an idea. The country's government made a few threats and received warnings about leaving, but nothing transpired. So far.

More recently, a similar term has emerged with regard to Great Britain. But, whereas Grexit was viewed largely from an economic perspective, “Brexit" is more about the politics of the EU.

A more Eurosceptic nation, there has long been a significant faction within the UK which believes that the nation’s interests would better served free of the EU policies on immigration, trade, and other issues. When Cameron launched his renegotiation strategy, it was designed to secure revised terms for Britain’s EU membership, to be bolstered by popular - if grudging - support through a referendum. The “British Question” would be settled.

But that the Brexit might actually happen now appears very real. Public discussion, changed perhaps by the migrant crisis, is focused around whether it should happen, rather than whether it might. Opinion polls have narrowed. A vote to remain in the EU, once seen as all but certain, now looks more in doubt. Yet, despite the polls, there is a still slight lean towards thinking that Brexit may ultimately be an irrational choice.

Brexit is an isolated idea and a single decision dividing the UK public. The potential aftermath has been ignored in the shadow of the greater decisionIn part, this is because there's no consensus or clarity as to how the UK would proceed after making the decision to leave the EU. Many have pointed out that if the UK votes for Brexit in Cameron’s referendum, they will be giving him, or more likely whoever succeeds him as Prime Minister, a clear instruction to leave the Union but without guidance or mandate about what to put in place of membership. This isn't a concern to be dismissed: Brexit is an isolated idea and a single decision dividing the UK public. The potential aftermath has been ignored in the shadow of the greater decision. This in part is why renegotiation of the UK's membership, as opposed to a full exit from the system, has been a favoured middle way. Brexit, on the other hand, would be a risky leap into the unknown.

Cameron himself has been largely opposed to Brexit, careful to make occasional nods of understanding and acknowledging that the UK could be just fine outside of the EU, but making clear that he believes the UK is better off as a member; a stance hardened by his speech this week in which he said that Brexit, with a consequent restructuring of relationships, could pose security concerns, both for the UK and its European allies. His strategy rests on securing a favourable renegotiation, which he can first sell to his fractious party and then to a majority of the public.

It is impossible to know completely how Brexit would work

However, Eurosceptics argue that Brexit may lead to a smoother transition than those who wish to remain are claiming, particularly from an economic standpoint: the UK would quickly find its footing as a more independent operator free of EU policies and regulations. Even Alex Weber, the chairman of UBS, recently suggested that the UK would probably get a good deal if it voted to leave. This is an enormously complex issue, and one that in ways is impossible to predict. But an endorsement from the chairman of one of the most influential banks in the UK lends some credibility to the Vote Leave campaign. Brexit has become a less outlandish prospect.

It is impossible to know completely how Brexit would work; it would involve a massive amount of change, even disruption, in virtually every government department. National security positions would need to be restructured along with trade and immigration policies; the economy would face a significant transition that may, or may not, go smoothly. It's easy to understand why there's so much debate over the issue, but equally easy to see why the extensive uncertainty of Brexit makes many uneasy.

Of course, Brexit would not just impact Britain but the remaining countries of the EU, who would be left not knowing how the UK would address its own international policies thereafter. But it's been argued that for an independent UK establishing new agreements with remaining EU countries would take roughly 10 years, an unappealing prospect for those countries. Divorce is never simple. Europe’s fate is almost entirely in the hands of the British government - and then the British people’s. Even though Donald Tusk, the European Council President, has stated that a swift renegotiation would be “very tough”, this fear could play to Cameron’s advantage: the prospect of a lengthy period of uncertainty regarding relationships with one of the most influential nations in Europe could drive others in the EU to work with David Cameron in negotiating new - better - membership terms.

This week David Cameron laid out his negotiation aims in a letter to Tusk; discussion about Brexit is only going to intensify from now on. The politics may get dirty. Brexit looks like a very bold idea that ultimately still has somewhat long odds of coming to fruition. The combination of Cameron's political need to secure a restructured EU membership and the rest of Europe's incentives to keep the UK around ought to keep things together. It's certainly not the sure thing it was though.

You can follow Amanda Cole on Twitter @amandabcole.

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