The European Union says it will not be “paralysed” after Britons voted to leave, but Brussels policymakers say uncertainty over Britain’s future is already complicating the lawmaking process for the rest of the EU.
As London waits, possibly for months, for a successor to Prime Minister David Cameron to start negotiating an exit that will retain its easy access to EU markets, some Europeans fear that Britain could obstruct legislation to strengthen its hand.
“We cannot afford to be stuck in limbo. The British must not hold the EU to ransom,” former Belgian premier Guy Verhofstadt told the European Parliament in a Brexit debate last week.
But despite his call, echoed across Brussels, for Britain to launch the two-year process of withdrawal, Cameron has left that to whoever the party chooses to replace him in September.
Some frontrunners for Conservative leader say they see no hurry to trigger Article 50 of the EU treaty, the start of formal negotiations to leave the bloc, and some Britons want the referendum result reversed.
“It’s slightly surreal,” a British diplomat conceded, as EU leaders rule out any discussion of Brexit terms before Article 50 is live, so that EU officials and diplomats are in a vacuum.
One gag doing the rounds in Brussels recalls “Schroedinger’s cat”: as the physicist’s imaginary pet was both alive and dead, so Britain is both in the EU and out, at the table but silent.
Britain is scheduled to chair ministerial councils for six months from next July.
But Cameron has also left to a successor whether to go ahead with the presidency, irritating officials who reckon it takes two years to prepare a good agenda.
The official line from a British government spokesman is: “We remain a part of the EU until negotiations are concluded.”
But British officials admit that on matters that will not affect Britain once it has left — most issues — they can have little say, leaving only short-term business — next year’s EU fishing quotas, say — in which diplomats are speaking out.
“We are in a holding pattern,” the British diplomat said.
Legally, British ministers retain full voting power in European councils, including a veto on some issues, and, in 751-seat EU parliament, Britain’s 73 members keep voting.
But a Briton has already resigned a key parliamentary role on climate change, long an issue Britain has led on.
Legislation due this month to spread the burden of cutting carbon dioxide emissions could be held up, some officials say, while they rework the sums to exclude the bloc’s second-biggest economy without knowing when, or even if, it will leave.
“We already feel we have lost credibility in the eyes of other MEPs,” a UK parliamentary source said.
That Brexit has begun is evident in the European Commission, the EU executive, where British nominee Jonathan Hill resigned, costing London a key role overseeing financial regulation that was seen as helping the City against the euro zone.
Cameron’s successor can still nominate another commissioner, but cannot expect a major job; EU officials, stung by Britain’s shock vote, sneer that London may get “commissioner for ballet”.
At the level of summits of national leaders, too, Cameron saw himself frozen out when the other 27 met on Wednesday in his absence.
For now, without Britain the European Council cannot make law, but such meetings will be common once London triggers Article 50, which keeps it out of negotiations with itself.
The divorce is unprecedented and it is unclear whether Britain should be excluded only from explicit talks on Brexit or from other debates — on trade policy, say — in which any EU decisions today may affect Britain as an outside power.
More troubling for some is that Britain might, depending on who will lead it, not trigger Article 50 and use its insider rights as leverage to force negotiation on a deal for itself.
“They could just be bloody awkward,” a senior EU official said, fearing Britain could hold councils to ransom.
States no longer have a veto on many issues, however, and one EU envoy warned: “If the UK makes problems, majority voting might be applied quite heartlessly.”
Another senior official said that if Britain does not launch Article 50 this year and dares be obstructive in the EU to force negotiations, then the Union could look at its legal options.
Citing EU treaty Article 4 demanding “sincere cooperation” from member states, the official said: “If your action paralyses the system then we can legally oblige you.” He acknowledged, though, that such threats from Brussels carry limited weight.
The European Parliament is also struggling with Brexit. Last week, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker turned to pro-Leave British members to ask: “Why are you here?”
The parliament’s German speaker, Martin Schulz, has told lawmakers there will be no change in Britons’ rights, even once withdrawal talks start under Article 50, until Britain leaves.
However, MEPs formal rights are few; influence comes from holding office on committees or steering through legislation. Those posts are shared among multinational groups and lame-duck Britons may have to give way to party colleagues from other states, at least by a mid-term reshuffle of jobs in December.
The Conservative leader in the chamber, Syed Kamall, said his team were working as normal, but added: “If Article 50 is triggered then we may need to look at how we tackle legislation that won’t come into force until after our departure.”
Whatever British MEPs do, some of their staff are already voting with their feet: “I’m looking for a job,” a second parliamentary aide told Reuters. “Have you got any ideas?”