As the reality of Brexit starts to sink in—with uncertainty roiling the markets, Scotland considering independence, banks moving jobs out of London, and big promises on immigration and health care being walked back—already proponents of Britain’s continued EU membership are looking for ways to revisit the decision. Some hope that the next prime minister, faced with mounting domestic chaos and internal party divisions, will simply decide it no longer makes sense to withdraw. Others, pointing out that the referendum was merely “advisory,” hope that the British parliament will vote not to implement it, or simply choose not to act. Still, others are looking to Scotland, where a majority voted for “remain,” to refuse its consent to Brexit, which Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon argues is required for any UK decision of such consequence. Finally, many Brexit opponents simply hope for a “do-over”; already nearly 4 million people have signed an online petition calling for a second referendum, on the grounds that turnout was limited and the outcome a close call.
All of these ideas are understandable given the stakes, the misleading promises of the “Leave” campaign, and the reports among some voters of buyer’s remorse, but they are also misguided. Whether proponents of Britain remaining in the EU like it or not, over 17 million British citizens voted to leave in a referendum whose results they would not have questioned had the outcome been reversed. A majority voted that way because they believed, in most cases sincerely and legitimately, that leaving the EU would save money, limit immigration and give Britain sovereignty over its economic decisions. Any attempt to block that process—within weeks or months of a democratic decision—would not only likely fail but would be a recipe for inflaming the anger and resentment of a large part of the British population that feels its concerns and interests are being ignored.
But none of this means that Brexit is a given—or that it can be avoided only if democracy is ignored. In the best of circumstances, the withdrawal process will be long and protracted. The Conservative Party must first choose a new leader, which will not happen until the fall. Then Britain will have to formally start withdrawal negotiations by triggering Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, which provides up to two years for the technical details of withdrawal to be sorted out. Alongside that—or only after that, if some in the EU get their way—Britain will have to negotiate with the EU to determine just what sort of new relationship the two will have going forward, another protracted process that will likely take years. By the time it concludes—after what could be a Brexit-induced downturn in the economy, the election of new leaders in France, Germany, the United States, and the Labour Party, the preparation of an independence referendum in Scotland, and most important the presentation of a new deal with the EU that may not appear as attractive as previously promised—it is legitimate to wonder if 52 percent of British voters will still be so keen on leaving. If so, at that point a new referendum, or even a general election, might be the only legitimate option.
The main problem with the June 23 referendum was not its rules, or the false promises of the Leave campaign. The problem was that it offered a choice between a clear alternative—remaining in the European Union according to existing rules and the specific deal that David Cameron negotiated in February 2016—or leaving it in favor of some unspecified, unknowable alternative. This was not a fair fight: Political scientists have long known that in any election between a specific candidate and a generic “Mr./Mrs. X,” the latter always wins. It is only when both sides are obliged to put up an actual and specific alternative that an accurate test of public preferences can be made.
That is what now needs to happen with the Brexit issue, and the reason why Britain’s new government needs to be given the time to freely negotiate the best new deal with the EU it can. As it does so, the British public will have a chance to see the likely real terms of Brexit, and the real costs and benefits that come with it. And I suspect it will become painfully clear that the “pro-cake and pro-eating cake” version of the deal is not on the table. The rest of the EU is a market of over 400 million people determined to deter any other potential member state from leaving; it has already signaled that there will be no special favors for Britain. Thus it will turn out that in exchange for the “access to the single market” that the leave campaign promised, Britain would have to pay significant contributions to the EU budget, allow for free movement of labor, and accept EU regulations—all without the seat at the decision-making table that comes with EU membership. It will also likely be clear that if Britain really does leave, investors and banks really will look elsewhere and Scotland really will opt for independence.
At that point, the British will still have every right to choose to leave the EU. And they should be given the right to express themselves on that choice between the new deal, continued EU membership based on the old deal, or no deal at all. That would at least be an honest, democratic choice among real alternatives, as opposed to the fantasy that was on the table on June 23.
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