In a referendum on June 23rd, Britons were asked: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” By a margin of 52% to 48%, they voted to leave. But that answer raises two new questions. First, what will be the terms of the divorce? As it becomes clear that the separation will be costly, a second question about Brexit will come to the fore: might there still be a way to avoid it?
The referendum was advisory, not binding. To set Brexit in motion, the British government has to invoke Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon treaty, which lays out the process for a member to leave the club. Once it has fired that starting gun, Britain and its EU partners have two years to come to a divorce deal (the deadline can be extended only if all 27 other EU members agree). The trouble is that the deal on offer is likely to fall well short of that promised by Leave campaigners, who suggested Britain could continue to enjoy access to the giant European single market while at the same time paying less into the EU budget and restricting the free movement of people from the EU. Disgruntlement could grow, especially if the British economy plunges into recession, as business confidence and investment collapses. Calls for a rethink could grow louder. A threatened Scottish veto is unlikely to scupper Brexit. Simply holding a second referendum to undo the outcome of the first (the traditional expedient, when countries such as Ireland and Denmark voted to block EU treaty changes) looks politically impossible, despite the millions of signatures on a petition calling for one. But a combination of time, events and Parliament could—just possibly—turn Brexit into Bremain.
Already the British government is stalling for time: the outgoing prime minister, David Cameron, has left the decision of when to trigger Article 50 to his successor, who won’t be in place until September. The longer the decision is delayed, the more chance there is for alternatives to Brexit to gain ground. Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, and others might come to see a tweak to free movement—such as temporary protection against surges in immigration—worth considering, to avoid further rumbles within the club. Elections loom next year in Germany, France and the Netherlands, which could put pressure on those countries’ leaders. In Britain, meanwhile, where politics is in turmoil, a possible early general election could even provide a mandate to a government that argues that the referendum result was a mistake. The way could then be clear for Parliament to back a new deal to approve Britain’s continued EU membership. Even if a Brexit deal is negotiated, it would in theory be possible for Britain’s Parliament to reject it and for the other EU members, pleased to see the British change of heart, to agree not to enforce it.
What are the chances of such Bremain scenarios? Not great; the likelihood is that Britain is indeed heading for the exit. Either way, the country faces a long and painful period of uncertainty, during which its economy will suffer and its internal divisions will widen.
Source: The Economist