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Disunited Kingdom Disinclined to Reverse Brexit



Despite hopes in financial markets to the contrary, the political chaos enveloping the United Kingdom following its referendum decision to leave the European Union makes it unlikely that the decision to “Brexit” might be reversed.

The ruling Conservative Party appears to be headed in a direction that makes an amicable agreement with the EU on the terms of Brexit and the future relationship less feasible. As a result, two starkly different scenarios might unfold. Under the first, the UK simply falls out of the EU after a futile two-year Article 50 negotiating period (likely sometime in 2019–20) and a prolonged period of uncertainty persists, as negotiations about the future relationship drag on. In the second scenario, the UK political system finds a way to reverse course mid-stream and abandon Brexit.

Yet negotiated middle-ground solutions, like various forms of European Economic Area (EEA) memberships, right now seem less credible. The recent financial market stabilization in the UK and Europe has been pricing in such compromise solutions, but the calm appears brittle. For whatever reason, more than 17 million British voters supported leaving the EU. Their voice, combined with the certain outcry from Britain’s right-wing tabloid press against any Conservative leader who dares attempt a Brexit reversal, represents a formidable political obstacle. That Britain one way or the other finds itself outside the EU today, therefore, must be the strong base case for the future. Only significantly more economic pain and a series of fortunate political circumstances might change this situation.

A host of options to reverse Brexit might have existed under a different political context but do not seem realistic today. For instance, the UK Parliament could technically choose to ignore the referendum results, instructing the new prime minister to not invoke Article 50. This, though, would require a sundering of party discipline and rare willingness of individual members of parliament to defy voters.

It is also conceivable that the uncertain constitutional powers of the four parliaments in the UK— Westminster, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland—are resolved by the UK Supreme Court in such a manner that the Scottish Parliament’s consent is ultimately required for the UK to depart the EU. With the Scottish Parliament highly unlikely to ever agree to departing the EU, the UK’s membership of the EU would continue. Handing the Scottish Parliament such veto power, however, would require a degree of de facto judicial activism by a court still largely filled with members of the UK House of Lords that would likely generate a powerful political backlash in England.

Brexit reversal paths focused on the impact of new parliamentary elections are perhaps more politically credible. A newly elected parliament could credibly claim to have just as valid a popular mandate as the referendum outcome of June 23 to decide how and if to proceed with Brexit. An electoral shakeup and, say, a resulting majority pro-EU Lib Dem representation in parliament would evidently see Brexit scrapped, but so could a hung parliament with a resurgent Lib Dem Party (or the Scottish National Party), an indispensable coalition partner in any government constellation. Here, Brexit would be reversed as part of forming a new UK government. This scenario, however, requires that Conservatives call an early election and that the results are expectedly anti-Brexit.

A future UK government could also decide to ask for a renewed public mandate to actually implement whatever Article 50 and forward-looking agreement with the EU, once such agreements have been “successfully” concluded. Either a new parliamentary election would be called in a few years’ time to settle the issue, and the prospect for a potential parliamentary majority emerging in favor of remaining in the EU would again rise, or the Conservative government could submit the actual “Brexit deal” to a new referendum in the UK, to enable voters to make an “informed choice” about whether to remain in the EU or finally pull the trigger to whatever Brexit terms the government had negotiated. Such a “final public mandate to leave” scenario would come only after what look to be tough prolonged negotiations with the EU and a period of potential significant economic uncertainty.

How this would weigh on the British public’s opinion of EU membership at the time is difficult to say, but in a few years’ time they would at least have the chance to decide between two concrete options, rather than the status quo of continued EU membership and Brexit proponents’ often-delusional fantasies about what an exit might mean. The likely scenario in Switzerland later this year would be a precursor for such a “second informed opinion referendum.” In February 2014, the Swiss voters approved a petition “against mass migration,” including quotas for EU citizens. This led the EU to signal to the Swiss authorities that a failure to change this law (due to be enacted into Swiss law within three years) would result in the cancellation of all bilateral economic agreements between Switzerland and the EU.1 As a result, Swiss voters are likely to head to the polls again later in 2016 to vote on whether they wish to continue to limit EU immigration or face the prospects of an end to all economic agreements with the EU. The outcome of such a second Swiss referendum later in 2016 would likely also shape the negotiating strategies of the rest of the EU in the coming years. Should the Swiss go to the polls and change their minds, the EU will surely be encouraged to take a hard line with the UK in the hope that voters there could also be convinced to rethink Brexit.

But before Britain decides whether to go the Swiss route, it still faces a long, arduous path toward some semblance of political and economic stability.


1. See EU Council Conclusion of December 2014 .

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