Britain’s referendum of 23 June 2016: The leap into the unknown



By Catherine Mathieu

On 23 June 2016, the British people decided (by 52% to 48%) to leave the European Union. After having long criticized the functioning of the EU and the constraints that it placed on the United Kingdom, on 19 February 2016 David Cameron obtained an agreement intended to allow the UK to remain in the EU – but it was not enough to convince the voters. In an OFCE Policy Brief (No. 1 of 13 July), we analyze how the British people’s concerns went beyond economic issues and that what counted was their desire to maintain (or regain) their political sovereignty.

The departure from the EU is, in the words of David Cameron, “a leap into the unknown”, and all that is possible now is to develop scenarios based on hypotheses about the outcome of the negotiations to be undertaken with the EU: from a rosy scenario in which both sides want to maintain as much as possible of the existing relations, to a dark scenario where the EU wants to set an example and the UK becomes a tax and regulatory haven.

As of early July, the UK clearly had not yet decided to formally leave the EU (by triggering Article 50), and will probably not do so before September. The resignations of the Brexit camp’s leaders and continuing changes in the political situation are leaving a fog over the establishment of negotiations: the pound has lost more than 10% against the euro and 12% against the dollar, and may not stabilize until the UK’s situation is clarified. It seems that we are entering into a grey scenario where the various shades are still unknown.

In the short term, depending on the hypotheses adopted, the impact of a Brexit could be slightly negative for the British economy, on the order of 0.2 point of GDP in 2016 according to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR), but this could reach several percentage points of GDP after two years depending on the scenario, with the UK Treasury entertaining the gloomiest prospects (-3.6% to -6%).

In the long term, again depending on the hypotheses adopted, the economic impact of the UK’s exit would be decidedly negative, especially according to the British Treasury, but the assumptions of a sharp decline in British trade are undoubtedly exaggerated.

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