Britain could face up to seven years of limbo if voters choose to leave the European Union in the 23 June referendum as negotiations take place over a new relationship, Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, has said.
With polls suggesting the result of the referendum on 23 June will be close, and voters keen to understand what the practicalities would be if Britain left, Tusk poured cold water on claims by some in Vote Leave that a new deal with the EU could be struck quickly.
Any country wanting to leave can trigger article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, which triggers a two-year process of negotiation about the terms of the departure with the other 27 member-states. The talks would be expected to tackle issues such as the tariffs the EU would apply to British goods, and the restrictions placed on freedom of movement.
Tusk, who chairs the EU’s main decision-making body, said that even if the negotiations could be completed within two years, the ratification of Britain’s new status could take much longer.
“Every single one of the 27 member states as well as the European parliament would have to approve the overall result. That would take at least five years, and I’m afraid, without any guarantee of success,” he said in an interview with the German daily Bild, to be published in full on Monday.
David Cameron has repeatedly stressed that Britain could face a “decade of uncertainty” while a new relationship is established with the rest of the EU if voters choose to leave.
Vote Leave campaigners have suggested the exit process would be relatively straightforward, and would then release Britain to strike new trade deals with non-EU states.
EU politicians have united in warning British voters about the perils of Brexit. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said it would be difficult for Britain to command the same negotiating power from outside the EU; and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schaüble, said on Friday that Britain would no longer have access to the single market.
“In is in. Out is out,” he told Spiegel magazine. “I hope and believe that the British will ultimately decide against Brexit. The withdrawal of Britain would be a heavy loss for Europe.”
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