Fast-forward to January 23, 2013, and what has become known as Prime Minister David Cameron’s “Bloomberg speech,” delivered at the company’s European headquarters. In it, Cameron cited public disillusionment with the EU, the successor to the EEC. He said the 28-member bloc was headed in a direction Britons had not signed up to. Indeed, in the preceding four decades, all of Europe came to be treated as a single market (with the Single European Act of 1986), allowing the free movement of labor and goods across the bloc; the bloc moved toward a single economic and monetary union (with the Maastricht Treaty of 1992) that would result in the euro (which the U.K. opted out of); and more powers were given to the European Parliament (with the Treaty of Lisbon of 2007).
For those who believed the EU had become too large, too powerful, and too distant, this was a nightmare come true. As Cameron put it in his Bloomberg speech: “They resent the interference in our national life by what they see as unnecessary rules and regulation. And they wonder what the point of it all is. Put simply, many ask, ‘Why can’t we just have what we voted to join—a common market?’”
Cameron said a vote on the U.K.’s membership in the EU was inevitable. It was better, he said, to hold it sooner rather than later to ensure a “remain” vote. In 2015, after much public debate over the issue, Parliament passed the European Union Referendum Act to make such a public vote possible, and in February of this year, Cameron announced the referendum would be held on June 23. And, by now, we all know how that ended, and the hand-wringing and warnings of doom that followed. But there is, in theory, an out: The 2015 Act did not make a provision for the referendum’s result to be legally binding. The law did not spell out the next steps in the event of a “leave” victory. That job, in the U.K., falls to Parliament because the country, like some other parliamentary democracies, views the legislature as sovereign.
So, what’s next? The Treaty of Lisbon for the first time set in place a mechanism for an EU member to leave the bloc—the by now well-known Article 50. But the referendum’s results were not an automatic trigger for its invocation. Parliament must invoke Article 50 in order for Britain’s negotiations on how it will extricate itself from the EU can begin.
A joint statement by the EU’s top officials, no doubt miffed that the U.K. had voted to withdraw despite multiple appeals from the European public and incentives to stay from European leaders, was clear: “We now expect the United Kingdom government to give effect to this decision of the British people as soon as possible, however painful that process may be. Any delay would unnecessarily prolong uncertainty. We have rules to deal with this in an orderly way.”