For sixteen years, from 1957, when six nations—France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries—signed the Treaty of Rome, until 1973, Britain was not a member of what was then called the European Economic Community. It managed to recover from World War II, albeit slowly, while at the same time “the Six,” as they were called, essentially assured the continent that war could no longer break out between France and Germany, as it had in 1870, 1914 and 1939.
For six more years, from 1973 to 1979, when Margaret Thatcher moved into 10 Downing Street, Britain endured a sluggish economy, a weak pound and trade unions that had a stranglehold on its economy. Membership in what by then came to be called the European Communities resulted in no appreciable improvement to the lives of ordinary British citizens. It was those citizens, who recalled the pre-Thatcher years when Britain belonged to the EU, as it renamed itself in 1993, that provided the bulk of those voting for Brexit in Thursday. They were accompanied by others, of course, especially residents of the Midlands and the north of England, the “rust belt” of the British Isles. In any event, the lesson of the three-plus decades from 1957 onward is that Britain did not gain appreciably from being in or out of the European Union.
There is no way of knowing what the economic ramifications of Brexit might ultimately turn out to be. In accordance with Article 50 of the 2007 Lisbon Treaty (which came into force two years later), Britain has two years to withdraw from the EU. When those two years actually commence is not at all clear, since the treaty simply states that membership “shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after . . . notification,” without specifying a timetable for notification. Moreover, the treaty also provides for the European Council, “in agreement with the Member State concerned,” to unanimously decide to extend the two-year deadline. In other words, it is not at all clear when Britain actually would withdraw, and under what terms. Since, for very different reasons, both Britain and the EU would want to minimize the impact of withdrawal—Britain to mitigate any negative economic ramifications of Brexit, the EU to forestall any unraveling of the European project—all that can be forecast at this time is a protracted negotiation that could take many years to finalize.