Post Referendum Circular Reference

It has been a fortnight since the UK electorate voted to leave the EU and the British political and financial landscape has already changed dramatically. But what we don’t know or can only tentatively forecast still dwarfs what we know.

The referendum result simply reflected a popular preference for the UK to leave an international organisation, nothing less, nothing more. There is no precedent for UK and EU leaders to rely on and Article 50 is at best only a very skinny rule book.

For all intents and purposes UK and EU leaders are flying blind. It’s not even obvious who is at the controls, let alone who will lead negotiations on behalf of the EU and in particular the UK following seismic changes in political personnel.

The next steps are thus anything but straightforward and the UK government and EU are currently caught in a prisoner’s dilemma, with none of the key players seemingly willing to make the first move.

The referendum result is not legally-binding, only advisory, and therefore the Lower House of Parliament will likely have to vote on whether to trigger Article 50. But the British government has so far provided only a vague wishlist and simply doesn’t know what the EU may or may not agree to.

Parliament will not want to kick start an almost irreversible process whereby the UK has announced a divorce but doesn’t know the terms and conditions of this divorce, let alone what its new relationship will look like. Unsurprisingly, the British government is playing for time.

But EU leaders have suggested that discussions about the UK’s exit from the EU and future trade agreements were conditional on the UK government first triggering Article 50. And that takes us back to square one.

When this deadlock is broken will depend on many variables, including the length of the stalemate itself, who is in charge at the point of making a decision and the ability and willingness of negotiating parties with different vested interests to compromise.

I would argue that the longer this stalemate lasts, the greater the likely damage to the UK and EU economies and the greater the odds that Article 50 is not triggered in the first place or that a mutually satisfactory deal is eventually reached. Early British general elections cannot be discounted, nor can a second referendum in a more extreme scenario.

Assuming that the current circular reference paralysing EU and UK leaders is unbroken near-term, the associated uncertainty will likely continue to weigh on the UK economy, sterling and global risk appetite. Whether this morphs into a deeper and more widespread crisis may boil down to how patient global financial markets are willing to be.

Political, financial and economic upheaval…and now for the hard part.

Read the full article on my website.