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Britain’s new Prime Minister Theresa May says that ‘Brexit means Brexit.’

SAMUEL KUBANI/AFP/Getty Images

Britain's new Prime Minister Theresa May says that "Brexit means Brexit," but no one is sure what that sentence means.

In the weeks since the British vote to leave Europe sent shockwaves through the world economy, it's looks like the ripples are going to continue for years.

"There are no experts on forecasting," says Marc Hauer, a Canadian-trained lawyer who practises immigration law in London.

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Canadian companies that export to or do business with Britain already fret that Brexit will require them to open additional European offices and possibly downsize their British ones, as trade patterns shift. But no one can say when it will be best to do this and how much shifting will be required.

Mr. Hauer speculates that British departure from Europe could have profound implications for Canadians who seek to work in Britain or immigrate there, though exactly how this will play out will take years to determine.

"Immigration policy tends to be driven by tabloid newspapers," which for decades have whipped up resentment against so-called hordes of foreigners moving to Britain, he explains.

In the two months leading to Britain's June 23 referendum, there was a 10-point surge in British voters saying that immigration was the biggest issue facing the country, according to Ipsos MORI's Issues Index.

The short-term difficulty for Canadians seeking work visas could come during the excruciating negotiations between Britain and the European Union to determine their own immigration rules after Brexit happens. Canadians could be caught in a squeeze as Britain tightens up across the board.

After that, Canadians might actually benefit, Mr. Hauer says.

"Once the impact of the post-Brexit loss of highly skilled employees is felt, particularly in financial services but also health care, the U.K. will be actively seeking qualified individuals to maintain its global position, and Canada and the rest of the Commonwealth will be in [a good] position," he says. For instance, Canadians offering consulting and other services there may benefit.

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The trouble is, this is all based on what British leaders might or might not do – and even they don't know yet.

"Of course, everything I say could turn out to be absolute cobblers [rubbish]," Mr. Hauer says.

Prime Minister May has already pushed back the date when Britain might invoke the EU's Article 50, giving formal notice to begin the two-year process for negotiating a divorce between Britain and Europe.

"All of us need time to prepare for these negotiations and the U.K. will not invoke Article 50 until our objectives are clear," she said.

What is clear? Conventional wisdom right after the June 23 vote held that Brexit was a harbinger of a worldwide movement away from globalization and free trade.

This view was fuelled by anti-free-trade sentiment among other EU members and U.S. political candidates on both the left (U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders) and the right (Donald Trump).

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British international trade secretary Liam Fox now says Brexit means the opposite.

"The first thing is to dispel the idea that Britain leaving the European Union was somehow an anti-free market decision," Mr. Fox told the Wall Street Journal in late July.

"In fact it was the reverse: In my view, it was about Britain becoming a much more outward-looking country."

While this may be a valid aspirational statement, as long as Britain remains in the EU it can't sign new trade agreements with Canada or other countries (although it can discuss these). Even if the May government invokes the Article 50 exit, the breakup could take two years.

Meanwhile, there is economic imperative for some quicker decisions.

Barely a month after the Brexit vote, the research organization Markit reported in its Purchasing Managers' Index that manufacturing and services fell to their lowest points in 87 months.

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"July saw a dramatic deterioration in the economy, with business activity slumping at the fastest rate since the height of the global financial crisis in early 2009," Markit's chief economist Chris Williamson said.

"The downturn … was most commonly attributed in one way or another to Brexit," he added.

In its July World Economic Outlook, the International Monetary Fund noted that Brexit now poses "an important downside risk for the world economy."

The IMF outlook also noted a weaker British pound and lower equity prices in some sectors.

All this uncertainty "tells us that people's confidence, businesses' confidence has been dented," said Philip Hammond, Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Conservative finance minister is even musing about a fall stimulus package.

"Our job is to restore as much certainty as we can, as quickly as we can," he says.

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