The overall, UK-wide result was: 51.9% ‘leave’ against 48.1% ‘remain’. Turnout was 71.8% with 17.4 million voters voting ‘leave’ and 16.1 million voters voting ‘remain’. In England and Wales the majority of voters voted ‘leave’. In Northern Ireland, as in Scotland and Gibraltar, however, a majority of voters indicated a desire to remain in the EU.In Scotland, all the counts returned majorities in favour of remain. On a turnout of 62.7%, a total of 440,707 voters in Northern Ireland opted to remain in the EU; 349,442 voters in Northern Ireland opted to leave the EU.
Triggering Article 50
With the result declared, the UK government was left with the decision of whether and when to formally notify the European Council under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) of its intention to withdraw the UK from the EU. No immediate decision was taken. Instead, the Prime Minister, David Cameron resigned, leaving the decision to his successor, Teresa May. On taking office on 13 July, May declared that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ signalling an intention to negotiate the terms of withdrawal. To this end a new Ministerial post of ‘Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union’ was created with David Davis, a leading ‘leave’ supporter – a so-called ‘Brexiteer’ – being appointed. The establishment of a Department for Exiting the European Union duly followed. Other ‘Brexiteers’ were given leading roles
in the new government. Boris Johnson, co-leader of the ‘leave’ campaign was appointed Foreign Secretary, and Liam Fox, was given the newly created post of Secretary of State for International Trade.
However, as of August 2016, the UK government had still not notified the European Council under Article 50 of its intention to withdraw the UK from the EU. The expectation is that Article 50 will not be triggered until 2017 at the earliest. The absence of formal notification is significant. Without it, negotiations on withdrawal from the EU cannot formally begin. This is the clear view of the UK’s partners in the EU. At a meeting of the leaders of the other 27 member states on 29 June 2016 (see Box), so during the week after the referendum, they made their position clear: ‘There can be no negotiations of any kind before this notification has taken place’.
Where are we and what might happen next?
There are three main reasons for the delay in the UK government triggering Article 50 and therefore negotiations on withdrawal. The first is a lack of clarity of whether the Prime Minister has the power to take the decision to notify the European Council of the UK government’s intention to withdraw the UK from the EU or whether there needs to be a vote in Parliament authorizing the notification. There are currently a range of private legal actions arguing that only Parliament has the authority to invoke Article 50. At the opening of the first of these legal challenges on 18 July, government lawyers conceded that any judgement was likely to be appealed up to the Supreme Court, and that consequently the Prime Minister is not expected to trigger Article 50 before the end of 2016 and more likely in early 2017. Legal challenges were also either threatened or lodged with the HighCourt in Belfast authority to invoke Article 50. At the opening of the first of these legal challenges on 18 July, government lawyers conceded that any judgement was likely to be appealed up to the Supreme Court, and that consequently the Prime Minister is not expected to trigger Article 50 before the end of 2016 and more likely in early 2017. Legal challenges were also either threatened or lodged with the High Court in Belfast.
The second reason is that the UK government needs time to determine its priorities for the withdrawal negotiations and its strategy for negotiating withdrawal. It also needs to decide what its priorities are for the separate but clearly related negotiations on the terms of a new relationship with the EU. What was evident in the aftermath of the referendum was that neither the UK government nor the Leave campaign had a clear and detailed plan for what should happen in the event of a ‘leave’ vote and what the strategy for negotiations should be.
Third, there is also a need to establish what the UK-wide position is, or at least a position that takes into consideration the different interests of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Theresa May has indicated that she wants to agree a ‘UK approach’ before Article 50 is triggered. Agreement will not be easily achieved given the very strong regional interests that have been expressed not least by the Scottish Government. The clear preference, as the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has been quick to state, is for Scotland to remain in the EU. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland have also been flagging key issues ‘of particular significance’ to Theresa May (see below). Reaching internal UK agreement is important; without agreement the integrity of the UK could be threatened, particularly with the question of a further referendum on Scottish independence once again on the political agenda.