Ever since the UK voted last June to pull out of the European Union (or "Brexit"), observers have speculated about what might happen next. Some even wondered whether voters, if given the chance to change their minds, might cancel Brexit in a second vote.
It looks like they won't have that opportunity. British Prime Minister Theresa May, who replaced David Cameron shortly after the referendum, immediately declared her intention to carry out Brexit and not have any further votes, and she has been forging ahead ever since. The prospect of Britain leaving the EU has left both large companies and start-ups looking to move to European countries.
The timetable for leaving the EU has always seemed a bit murky--after all, no nation has ever done it before. To formally leave the EU, the UK must invoke Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, which governs relations among EU nations. Once a nation invokes Article 50, it must leave the EU within two years, unless all other member nations agree to an extension. May has declared her intention to invoke Article 50 this month, and the British press is full of rumors that she means to begin the process this coming week, perhaps as soon as Tuesday.
Within the UK, May has mostly cleared the hurdles she must before invoking Article 50. Although she claimed she had the right to invoke Article 50 on her own authority, Britain's Supreme Court ruled in January that Parliament must approve the move. Last month, the House of Commons voted its approval with a strong majority. Last week, the House of Lords, gave its approval as well--with a couple of modifications. First, it insisted that Parliament have the right to compel May to negotiate changes to the Brexit agreement, rather than simply voting yes or no on it. May has argued that this will weaken her negotiating position. The Lords also inserted protections for EU citizens living in the UK--something May does not want to offer until the same protections are offered to Britons living in Europe.
Unlike the United States, the two houses don't need to reconcile their bills. Commons can override Lords and given its earlier vote it may do just that, perhaps on Monday. If so, May could invoke Article 50 on Tuesday.
And then what?
Some British officials familiar with the intricacies of EU bureaucracy claim it will really take at least 10 years to negotiate the Brexit exit treaty--which of course means the UK will also have to negotiate with the EU member states for an extension of the two-year deadline. I'm not sure whether that's true, but it is clear that the two sides have a lot to talk about. For example, the EU says the UK will owe 50 billion pounds sterling if it leaves, whereas some UK lawyers say the EU owes the UK 9 billion pounds. If the two sides can't come to terms, the UK will find itself outside the EU without trade agreements to facilitate commerce between the two.
It might also find itself without Scotland. The Scottish held a referendum on leaving the UK in 2014, and voted to stay by a decent margin. But in the Brexit vote, the majority of Scots voted to stay in the EU. And now that the UK is leaving, Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says it's "highly likely" there will be another independence referendum soon. Scotland would need the UK government's permission to hold such a vote, and May has declared herself against Scottish independence. Still, her government might well grant permission for a second Scottish vote on secession, because saying no would make Britain look like exactly the sort of tyrant Scotland should try to get away from.
None of this sounds very enviable and yet there are some who envy it. Specifically, the Dutch. The Netherlands is holding its general election on Wednesday and far-right candidate Geert Wilders has promised that, if elected, he will pull the Netherlands out of the EU (and also shut down mosques and ban Muslims). He was leading in the polls, but is now polling near even with current Prime Minister Mark Rutte. The outcome of that election is far from clear.
But it is just possible that if the UK doesn't invoke Article 50 this week, the Netherlands might beat them to it.