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Brexit: EU leaders are refusing to give Britain an easy way out

In last week’s Brexit vote, Britain voted to leave the European Union. But that result doesn’t take effect automatically. Britain’s government has to invoke Article 50, the provision of a key EU treaty that governs a country’s exit from the EU.

And British leaders — including outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron and Boris Johnson, a leading candidate to replace him — have signaled that they’re in no rush to trigger the formal opt-out clause. Instead, they say they’d like to hold informal talks with European leaders first, to make sure the transition happens smoothly.

But on Monday, EU leaders adopted a hard line against Britain. The leaders of France, Germany, and Italy announced that they would refuse to hold formal or informal talks with British leaders prior to the formal invocation of the opt-out clause.

Article 50 gives EU leaders leverage

The reason for this is that European leaders know triggering Article 50 will tilt the balance of power in their favor.

Invoking Article 50 lights a two-year fuse: If time runs out without a new deal in place, the result would be a disorderly exit from the EU that could be hugely disruptive to trade, travel, and the conduct of business. Brits might lose the right to travel in the European Union. British-made goods might suddenly become ineligible for sale in the EU.

That outcome would be bad for all of Europe, but it would hurt the UK — and British businesses — a lot more than any other EU country.

So if negotiations occur after Article 50 is invoked, Britain’s new prime minister will effectively have a gun to his head. He’ll be highly motivated to make concessions to make sure that Britain still has access to Europe’s common market when time runs out.

In contrast, if negotiations happen prior to the formal invocation of Article 50, they could drag out for many years. European leaders have already held months of talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron. Those talks concluded earlier this year in a deal that both sides hoped would address key British grievances and take the wind out of Brexit supporters’ sails.

But that effort failed, and European leaders are getting tired of endless negotiations. If they held talks again, they could face more pressure to make concessions of their own just to get the process over with. And a relatively smooth process might encourage other European countries to follow Britain’s lead.

European leaders may also be hoping that forcing Britain to make a stark choice between staying in the EU or leaving under possibly chaotic circumstances will cause them to think twice about leaving at all. Defying the will of the voters would be politically costly, of course, but so too would be presiding over a chaotic exit from the EU that damages the British economy.