Britain’s vote to leave the European Union dismayed and disappointed millions across the United Kingdom, Europe and beyond. The mood of “regrexit” is palpable in Japan. Brexit fears are causing an appreciation of the yen that is weakening Japan’s export-led economy. Companies such as Nissan, Hitachi and Nomura set up operations in Britain as a gateway to Europe. The £38 billion that Japan has invested in the U.K. is now at risk, dependent on whether Britain retains access to the European single market following its exit from the EU. Uncertainly following Britain’s referendum may also hamper Japan’s current trade deal negotiations with the EU.
The consequences of Brexit are already dire. Prime Minister David Cameron has resigned. Sterling and the FTSE fell dramatically. Scotland may leave the U.K. And peace in Northern Ireland, brokered in the context of British and Irish shared membership of the EU, hangs in the balance. Less than a month since the referendum, some Brexiters are experiencing cold feet.
But the U.K.’s departure from the EU, while highly probable, is not inevitable. Three main scenarios could halt Brexit.
First, the British Parliament could vote to overturn the referendum result. Under Britain’s constitution, Parliament is sovereign. The June 23 referendum was not legally binding, but advisory. To leave the EU, Britain must invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty; this begins a two-year countdown to departure. David Cameron has not yet hit the legal start button. Although a majority of Britons voted to leave the EU, the majority of members of Parliament are in favor of remaining in Europe. They could instruct the government not to trigger the Article 50 process.
However, any move by Parliament to overturn the referendum result would be wildly undemocratic. Ignoring the will of the 51.9 percent who voted to leave would only confirm the view of many that the British political system is rigged in favor of elites, and unresponsive to ordinary citizens. A sense of political powerlessness contributed to voters’ support for Brexit. Parliament rejecting the referendum result would dangerously deepen mistrust and division. Britain’s leaders must focus on fashioning a new settlement with the EU that moderate voters on both sides of the European debate can support.
Second, an early general election could give a newly elected government a national mandate to remain in the EU. In 2011, the British Parliament voted to enact fixed-term general elections, with the next scheduled for 2020. But Parliament can vote to bring the election forward. A change in prime minister following Cameron’s resignation would be an adequate pretext to dissolve Parliament and call a national vote. For a general election to stop Brexit, the Conservative Party would have to be defeated. Even if a pro-“remain” candidate succeeds Cameron as party leader, the majority of Conservative voters in the 2015 general election back Brexit. No Conservative prime minister will possess a mandate to keep the U.K. in the EU.
If an election were called in the autumn, could the main opposition Labour Party win enough support to form a government either alone or in coalition with Britain’s other pro-EU parties? Currently, Labour is in the mist of a botched coup against leader Jeremy Corbyn, who is somewhat disingenuously accused by his own members of Parliament of contributing to remain’s defeat in the referendum.
Corbyn’s performance during the campaign was underwhelming, but it is hard to point to anyone among Labour’s current crop of parliamentarians who is making a substantial positive contribution to the national debate in favor of EU membership.
Labour’s attempt to promote a pro-EU message to its core supporters was undermined by the media’s obsession with the Conservatives’ civil war over the referendum. According to John Curtice, president of the British Polling Council, two-thirds of those voting Labour in 2015 voted to remain in the EU. In comparison, only about 40 percent of Conservative voters in 2015 voted remain. Corbyn is taking much of the blame for the remain side’s failure, when in truth there is little evidence he is personally responsible. The referendum is a pretext for Corbyn’s removal for those who have always doubted his leadership capabilities. But although Corbyn has not performed as badly as his detractors maintain, he has not made sufficient gains to suggest he could win an early general election, which would be a necessary step toward forming a pro-EU government with a mandate to remain in Europe.
Third, another referendum could possibly block Brexit. Already more than 3 million Britons have signed an online petition calling for a second vote. But another referendum should not be called immediately. Voters cannot demand a second ballot because they don’t like the outcome of the first. However, a new referendum could be called after a general election by a government with a fresh mandate for a second vote.
In 1975, following his election victory the previous year, Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson held an in-out referendum on membership of what was then the European Economic Community, which Britain had joined under his Conservative predecessor in 1973. Even without a general election, a second referendum could be held in two years’ time following the conclusion of negotiations with the EU on the terms of Britain’s exit.
There is a precedent for a second referendum. Irish voters rejected the EU’s Nice Treaty in 2001, then approved it in a second referendum in 2002. By promising a second referendum on the exit deal reached with the EU, Cameron’s successor may forestall Scotland’s split from the U.K. Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already called for another vote on independence after Scottish voters overwhelmingly backed remaining in the EU. A second referendum making Brexit conditional on securing a majority in favor in all four U.K. nations could further undermine momentum for Scottish independence.
The EU referendum confirms the old adage that a week is a long time in politics. Even if Britain initiates Article 50, its exit from the EU is not a forgone conclusion. In two years, much will change in U.K. politics. During that time, the EU itself may move closer to Britain’s position. Unlimited freedom of movement, judicial activism and a commitment to further integration are British concerns shared by many voters in other European states.
The British vote to leave should be a moment of reflection across the EU. It is not too late to save Britain’s membership, and in the process to strengthen support for the EU within its other 27 member states.
Tina Burrett is an associate professor of political science at Sophia University.
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