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Wait and see on Brexit

Bernd Riegert / db
August 15, 2016

The Brexit will take longer than British voters imagined in the June referendum - and there's a good chance it will never happen. DW looks at key questions and answers.

Sergey Elkin cartoon of Theresa May
Image: Sergey Elkin

Is there a timetable for the Brexit?

British newspapers reported over the weekend that the country's new Prime Minister Theresa May could wait until October 2017 before requesting an exit from the EU. Negotiations on the modalities of leaving the EU could take until the end of 2019. It's totally unclear at this point when the Brexit would actually go into force and how long the transition period would be.

Why is it taking so long?

If the Sunday Times and other media are to be believed, the British government is in chaos. While two new ministries have been created - one for the Brexit and one for international trade - they don't have enough qualified personnel and aren't yet quite sure what exactly they're supposed to negotiate. Trade Minister Liam Fox and Foreign Minister Boris Johnson have been squabbling over who is responsible for trade relations with the EU and the rest of the world.

Prime Minister May said in a statement last week that the entire government is fully intent on preparing the Brexit negotiations.

EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker says he has suspected all along that the Brexit supporters don't really have a plan. During the most recent EU parliamentary debate on the Brexit, he said he can't understand why it should take months before the negotiations can begin.

Snail on leaf
Britain's government is in no hurry to leaveImage: imago/McPHOTO

How are the other EU states reacting?

Sit tight, and think some more - that seems to be the motto for the time being.

Ahead of her summer vacation, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she understands that Britain needs a few months to sort things out.

So far, the EU has acted on the assumption that Prime Minister Theresa May would trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty at the end of the year - an article that in broad strokes regulates leaving the EU. That timeframe now seems to have been shelved indefinately.

These past weeks, May has made inaugural visits to many European capitals, and of course, she and her colleagues have been discussing the Brexit. These talks are hardly informal pre-negotiations, however. At the end of June, the other 27 EU states decided not to negotiate until Britain has officially triggered Article 50.

Angela Merkel and Theresa May
Many blame Angela Merkel's open-door migration policy for galvanizing support behind BrexitImage: picture-alliance/Reuters/BREUEL-BILD/Jason Harrell

How is the EU preparing?

Some member states, including France, have been urging a speedy farewell to Britain, without many concessions. Germany has advocated a softer approach to a British exit.

But everyone is slowly getting used to the current state of uncertainty. EU diplomats in Brussels interpret the most recent economic figures to mean that Britain suffers more from the uncertainties surrounding the Brexit than the EU. It's up to London to forge ahead, not the EU, they say.

On Monday, Italy's Premier Matteo Renzi, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel meet on a tiny Italian island to discuss how to deal with the Brexit. On September 15, all EU leaders, with the exception of Britain, meet for a summit in Bratislava - again to ponder the British exit.

According to the European Council, decisions are not expected. EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier takes office on October 1, a former French minister and close friend of Juncker. Britain sees Barnier, who also served as EU commissioner, as a hardliner.

Anti-Brexit protester in London
Some supporters hope the EU will change radically in coming years - as will British attitudes toward itImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Tallis

What are the consequences of waiting for the Brexit?

If Prime Minister May really were to wait until October 2017 before playing the Brexit card - until after national elections in France and Germany - leaving would get more complicated. Elections for the European Parliament will be scheduled for May or June 2019, and if Britain still hasn't left the EU by then, it would have to participate.

Britain is entitled to 74 lawmakers. The Brits, though on their way out, would still have a seat and a vote when the next EU Commission is chosen and nominated in the fall of 2019. That year at the very latest, the EU holds budget talks for the period until 2027. In theory, Britain would have to take part in the negotiations, even if the country plans to stop its annual net contribution of about 8.5 billion euros ($9.48 billion.)

Will there ever be a Brexit?

Some EU politicians doubt that Prime Minister May really wants to leave the EU.

"The British government isn't legally bound to the referendum," German EU lawmaker Elmar Brok said in an interview. "Britain will never leave," Austrian Interior Minister Hans-Jörg Schelling told Germany's "Handelsblatt" newspaper last month. "Five years from now, they'll still be a member."

Scotland and Northern Ireland would prefer to remain in the EU anyway, and they're prepared to leave the UK if they have to. Scotland is already preparing for a second independence referendum. In Northern Ireland, there's been a first lawsuit against the Brexit. Theresa May could drag out the Brexit as far as 2020, the latest date for elections in Britain's House of Commons, Brussels EU diplomats suspect.

In that case, British voters could vote once more on whether they were really serious when they voted "Leave" the first time.

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