A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Cornelius AdebahrAssociate in Carnegie’s Europe Program
Brexit hasn’t even happened yet, so it cannot be reversed. What is more, it doesn’t have to take place. What has shocked Europe and much of the financial world is the majority expression by the British people of their intent to leave the European Union for good. Yet today just as much as before the June 23 referendum, the UK is (still) an EU member.
Those who argue that the vote should be blindly accepted fall into the trap set by populists pitting so-called ordinary people against the elites. For good reasons, the will of the people is not the only ingredient of a well-functioning, representative democracy based on the rule of law. The referendum was consultative in nature, called by a prime minister eager to secure his party base and hijacked by opponents for political opportunity, with a campaign filled with hyperbole, hubris, and hysteria.
Certainly, in a referendum intended to be about regaining sovereignty, the British parliament should rule supreme. Its members, most of whom are against Brexit, were democratically elected, and the members of the UK government have pledged to serve the country’s interest. Time for both to act accordingly and call for an early general election. Only the next parliament, brought about through an election campaign fought over the real meaning of Brexit, can legitimately decide whether the UK should remain a member of the European Union.
Rosa BalfourSenior fellow in the Europe Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States
It may be wishful thinking, but the British vote to leave the EU can be reversed. The fact that the June 23 referendum was not legally binding is less important than the political commitment made during the campaign to respond to the outcome. But if the political context changes as dramatically as it appears, this may influence the decision. Citizens are mobilizing in large numbers, and the UK and Scottish parliaments may manage to block the result. With leadership changes in both the governing Conservative Party and potentially the opposition Labour Party and a possible early general election, there is growing space to change the outcome.
The rest of the EU is worried that the current limbo could unleash further destabilizing forces on an enfeebled EU and is frustrated at having to deal with such an awkward partner. But it is in the interests of all to avoid a rupture and facilitate a British rethink by being patient about the timeframe to activate Article 50 of the EU treaty, which sets out the procedure for leaving the bloc. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s timeframe of three months should be seen as reasonable.
Equally important will be what lessons European political and institutional leaders will draw from this. Three such lessons stand out. One: referenda such as this are not about democratic politics but about a dictatorship of slim majorities through black-and-white questions on complex issues. As a tool, referenda should be fundamentally rethought. Two: political leaders across Europe need to address the causes of Euroskepticism. Three: the EU will need to think about its own democratic reform and devise policies that are closer to the citizens.
Carl BildtFormer foreign minister of Sweden
In theory yes, but in the practical world of politics, it is very hard to see how the British vote to exit the EU can be reversed.
It’s of course up to the UK political system. But I fail to see that it can deliver a U-turn of such massive magnitude in any reasonable timeframe. I fear the governing Conservative Party will now lock itself on a clear Brexit course, and the opposition Labour Party will be another mess for some time to come. There is no Churchill in sight.
In a more distant post-Brexit future, the UK could of course reapply for membership in whatever union might then exist. But that’s a question for another day, I fear.
Federiga BindiSenior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and director of the Foreign Policy Initiative at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research
I hope so. The Brits have chosen to leave, and the worst thing the EU could do would be to offer the UK yet another negotiation to keep it in the EU. That would really be the end of the EU.
Europeans have to start by asking themselves a fundamental question: Had the Remain camp prevailed, would people be asking for a new vote? Clearly not. Should the Brexit vote be discarded, Europe would embark on a dangerous path. The Western world has engaged in (useless) wars in the last fifteen years in the name of democracy, and yet the EU is not able to make it work at home.
Brexit can teach Europe a few lessons. First, if you play with fire you get burned. British Prime Minister David Cameron made it into the history books as the man who threw away a nation to win a second electoral term. Other politicians will now hopefully think again before doing something that stupid.
Second, so much for rational voting behavior. U.S. Democrats be advised.
Third, history and self-determination cannot be stopped. Should Scotland and Northern Ireland decide to exit the UK and rejoin the EU, it would be the effective end of British colonialism. Europe should not be sad.
Fraser CameronDirector of the EU-Russia Centre
On the basis of past experience—think referendum reruns in Ireland—Brexit is reversible. It is not even clear whether all Leave leaders actually want a British exit from the EU, as opposed to using the referendum to further their egos and pave a path to Number 10.
There are many possible scenarios, from Scotland blocking Brexit to the UK government putting a mildly changed relationship to a second referendum. After all, Nigel Farage of the Euroskeptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) was keen to have a second referendum if the Leave campaign lost!
But more important is why reverse the decision now? Why not let those who campaigned for Brexit take responsibility and see how far they get in negotiating a new nirvana for the UK?
The anti-EU poison that infects the British political bloodstream has to be drained away, and that can be done only with a new generation of British politicians. A lengthy time-out might be the only way to ensure that the Brits come to their senses.
Uri DadushSenior associate in Carnegie’s International Economics Program
Yes, there are many scenarios in which a reversal of the Brexit vote is possible, and though each is unlikely, one or more could materialize. After it formally notifies its decision to exit the EU under Article 50 of the EU treaty, which will not occur before a new prime minister is appointed in September or October, Britain has two years to complete its separation, or longer if all other EU members agree. That is a long time in politics.
Reversal could occur either if a new referendum overturns Brexit or if a new government is elected on a Remain platform. If the Conservatives are unable to agree on a new leader or if the new leader concludes that he or she does not have sufficient parliamentary support to exit the EU, an early election could be called. A new referendum could be called a year or two from now if negotiations with the EU reach a dead end, or if Scotland is on the way to seceding, or in the unlikely event that the EU decides to place new restrictions on the movement of people, or, even more unlikely, EU negotiators are ready to grant the UK an exception on immigration rules.
The most likely outcome by far is a deal in which the UK exits but maintains a level of access to the single market that closely resembles free trade. Britain would also have to conform to a large number of other conditions, such as continued contributions to the Common Agricultural Policy and liberal (but not unlimited) immigration of EU nationals. Though a referendum on EU membership requires a yes or no answer, the reality is that the link between the UK and the EU is a relationship that entails many shades of gray.
Marta DassùSenior director for European affairs at the Aspen Institute and editor in chief of Aspenia
Brexit is not exactly reversible, but almost. Before the June 23 referendum, the UK was half in the EU. Now it’s going to be half out. The situation will be different—and yet only up to a point.
The referendum was dominated by gut feelings, but in the aftermath of the Brexit vote it’s the two sides’ interests that are going to prevail. The British people’s interest is to remain pegged to the EU, crucially with preferential access to the single market. Continental Europeans, with Germany heading the list, have an interest in maintaining close ties with one of Europe’s leading economies. The key issue in future negotiations isn’t going to be around the technicalities of a British recess. What really matters is the British relationship with the EU in place thereafter. European governments must be prepared to negotiate a Norway-like or Norway lite option—which is conditional on the UK accepting free movement of people. Britain, in its own interest, will have no choice but to jettison some of the Brexiteers’ crazier pledges.
At the same time, it’s in the EU’s political interest to avoid contagion. It isn’t going to be easy to strike a proper balance between the economic goal of keeping the UK anchored to the single market and the political goal of placing the English patient in an isolation ward.
For the EU, then, granting the UK a special status again—this time as a half-out country—will be difficult, while the new British government will try to secure some concessions on the movement of people. This is the essence of future negotiations.
In a best-case scenario, the UK will take up a place in an external ring of the European space. And the EU of the remaining 27 member states is going to reform—something it should’ve done anyway, but the English lesson has now made it impossible for the union to procrastinate any further.
Thomas de WaalSenior associate at Carnegie Europe
The Leave leaders did not have a plan for the day after the June 23 referendum and are recklessly irresponsible. But more than 17 million people voted for a British exit from the EU, and their votes cannot be simply discounted.
Using a constitutional device to block Brexit could provoke a dangerous backlash. Nigel Farage, the leader of the Euroskeptic UK Independence Party (UKIP), implicitly threatened violence when he uttered the ominous phrase on June 24 that Brexit had been achieved “without a single bullet being fired.”
There appear to be two narrow democratic paths back from the brink.
One stems from the very different stance Leave supporter Boris Johnson took in the Daily Telegraph on June 27, when he walked back from the rhetoric he had used in the campaign. Johnson’s change of tack is outrageous but leaves open a small chance that if the more merciful approach favored by German Chancellor Angela Merkel prevails, some kind of special status deal for the UK in the EU could be pulled out of the fire.
The other possibility comes if the opposition Labour Party manages to eject Jeremy Corbyn and choose a new leader who is electable and actually believes in the European project. If that leader were to win a general election, he or she could call a new referendum with a more precisely worded question about what kind of European model is on offer and give British voters a chance to express Bremorse.
Neither of these scenarios looks very likely. To work out, they need a lot of good luck, goodwill, and statesmanship that is in short supply. But I cannot see any other routes out of this madness at the moment.
Michael EmersonAssociate senior research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies
I would like to think so. With the huge turmoil in British politics now, maybe anything could happen.
How might Brexit unravel? British Prime Minister David Cameron in his resignation speech on June 24 said that the British people had made “a very clear decision” to leave the EU. Corrigendum: there was no clear decision, only a narrow majority in which the British people were deeply and bitterly divided like never before, between the English and the Scots, between London and the English provinces, and between young and old. Since then, over 4 million British citizens have petitioned for a second referendum.
The House of Commons has a large majority of members of parliament (MPs) who favor Remain. What about the sovereignty of parliamentary democracy, some now say, after an advisory referendum that has no legal force? A large majority of MPs was reported in early June to be wanting to insist that the UK remain at least in the single market, without which they would bring the government down.
Leave campaigner Boris Johnson says he is in no hurry to trigger Article 50 of the EU treaty, which sets out the procedure for leaving the union. So much the better. Brexit was sold on a false prospectus, a dreadful mistake; let this become clear. A fresh election, a sound new leader of the opposition Labour Party, and so on into the second referendum.
Peter LudlowChairman of the European Strategy Forum and historian of the European Council
The answer must surely be “No, not yet.” The British people were consulted, and a majority of them said Leave. To plead now that the British parliament can, let alone should, ignore the popular vote is simply not credible. Both activists and voters did what they did before and on June 23 on the assumption that the outcome would be binding.
It is equally unrealistic to imagine that the UK will be offered another deal that can be voted on in a second referendum. This has happened in the past when Denmark and Ireland voted no to EU treaties. But the starting point was totally different in each case. The UK, which already has a larger number of exemptions from its treaty obligations than any other member state, has only just concluded a renegotiation, the results of which were meager precisely because there was so little that its partners could offer without emptying membership of all meaning. The cupboard is bare.
The only development that might transform the outlook is therefore the election of a new, pro-EU government in the UK. Given the post-Brexit turmoil in British politics, a realignment is not impossible. However, the new party is unlikely to win an election unless and until Brexit has been consummated and the electorate has had an opportunity to see just what a shabby option it is.
John PeetEurope editor of the Economist
The short answer is yes, but it would be very hard.
Previous referendum reversals have been about EU treaties that can be tweaked slightly and put to another vote, and they have happened only in small countries. It would be much harder to do this for Brexit unless other countries were suddenly to agree to stop the free movement of people, which seems highly unlikely.
By contrast, the negotiations triggered by Article 50 of the EU treaty, which sets out the procedure for leaving the bloc, may lead only to a Norway-like option for Britain that keeps most of the things British voters wanted to reject: free movement, budget contributions, the acceptance of EU red tape. In that case, Brits just might feel buyer’s remorse and prefer full membership instead. But it remains a highly unlikely outcome.
Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
The issue of reversing the British vote to leave the EU is probably seen in perfectly symmetrical terms in the UK and in the rest of the European Union.
The Brexit gamble and the fallacies of the Leave campaigners’ narrative left many British citizens in shock on June 24, wondering what they had done. This is probably valid not only for urban, educated, young voters, who were massively on the Remain side, but also for many of those who favored Brexit. Whether via a popular petition or a veto from Scotland, there are several ways to dream of a reversal of the vote. The worst of all possible options would be that the government of British Prime Minister David Cameron decided to ignore the referendum results in the supreme interest of the UK. Such a decision would only feed more resentment against the EU and the dismantlement of the European architecture.
Among the other 27 EU member countries, the majority is now leaning toward a quick start of Brexit negotiations, to avoid uncertainty setting in and further damaging the EU (and Britain too). Tensions may rapidly increase as British domestic politics may lead to serious procrastination, at least until September or October, when a new British prime minister is due to be in place. Suspicions may also arise of London trying to achieve more British exceptionalism through negotiations that would achieve what the Leave camp wanted while simultaneously keeping the UK in the EU.
Overall, in the short term, there may now be a clash between British domestic politics and the EU’s collective interest. This is a dangerous trend. Populist and extreme right-wing forces would be the only winners of either prolonged uncertainty or a denial of the referendum results.
Jeremy ShapiroResearch director at the European Council on Foreign Relations
It is impossible to reverse Brexit. The idea of overturning such a clearly and legitimately expressed will of the people would gut many of the most cherished principles of British democracy. Perhaps worse, at a moment of deep divide between the governed and the governing, for the political class to nullify the people’s choice would only lead to a deeper political crisis in the future.
It is also, however, impossible to move forward with Brexit. It has become clear just in the few days since the June 23 referendum that the process of separating the UK from the EU is too laced with economic complications and geopolitical uncertainties to proceed. In a time of multiple international crises, Europe simply cannot afford such an extended period of divisive navel-gazing. Going ahead would amount not so much to a divorce as to a suicide pact.
So, the unstoppable political force of the people’s will has crashed into the bureaucratically immovable object of EU membership. Something impossible will have to happen.
Simon TilfordDeputy director of the Centre for European Reform
Maybe, but it might happen only via a sojourn in the European Economic Area (EEA).
Britain’s pro-Europeans are placing their hopes of continued EU membership on an early general election producing a government with a mandate to hold a second referendum. But the obstacles are formidable. A two-thirds majority of members of parliament (MPs) is needed to dissolve the legislature, and this is almost certainly out of reach. Moreover, it is far from clear how the opposition Labour Party would campaign in such an election: many Labour politicians believe the party must take a tougher line on immigration to win back alienated working-class voters.
The most likely way of making Brexit reversible is for Britain to join the EEA through the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). Although this would be far worse than EU membership, a majority of MPs may decide that it is the least bad option. Strictly speaking, they would be respecting the will of the people, as the June 23 referendum was on EU membership, not the free movement of workers. And if net immigration falls sharply over the next couple of years as the British economy struggles, they may calculate they can back EEA membership without risking a populist backlash. After a few years in the EEA abiding by EU rules but having no say over them, the British may start to find EU membership very attractive.
Ben TonraHead of the School of Politics and International Relations at University College Dublin
No, the Brexit decision is irreversible, but the very worst of the consequences can be ameliorated. The somewhat arcane conversations surrounding parliamentary sovereignty and the constitutionally advisory nature of any referendum in a UK constitutional context cannot reasonably guide political thinking. For the Mother of Parliaments so egregiously to ignore the (possibly) considered and clearly declared view of its electorate would be unconscionable.
At the same time, it is the parliament’s duty to act—and that of individual members of parliament to govern—in the best interests of the people. To that end, it may well be possible, even advisable, for the UK’s negotiators in their eventual talks with EU interlocutors to take a more considered view than the electorate. Should that entail the UK’s desire for continued membership of the single market, encompassing free movement and the rule of law, then the very worst adverse consequences may indeed be avoided. Whether that might require a second referendum or general election to ratify would be a critical political judgment. In the absence of such an outcome, Brexit may in fact be reduced to Engxit.
Pierre VimontSenior associate at Carnegie Europe
Brexit can be reversed, but it all depends on British political leaders and, more importantly, on the British people. Only they can decide to reverse the course set by the outcome of the June 23 referendum. The EU cannot be immune from any democratic process, and supporters of European integration, however honorable their cause may be, must learn to accept the verdicts of voters.
Any reversal on Brexit will have to be the result of a long process of reflection and discussion among British society on the political and economic consequences of the divorce with the EU and on the possible alternatives to a definitive departure. Even then, one must be aware that such alternatives are scarce. With Britain already the beneficiary of many opt-outs, there is not much room for further concessions short of a straight exit, as seen in the difficult negotiations concluded by British Prime Minister David Cameron in February on the free movement of people. Once again, the myth of a plan B is coming back to haunt discussions on the European Union with little hope of being transformed into any serious reality.
The sudden doubts, hesitations, and even contradictions observed in the Brexit camp since June 23 are reminiscent of the tensions that followed similar negative referendum results in Denmark, France, Ireland, and the Netherlands, which brought about compromises and U-turns. Each one of these consultations had to face the complexity and shortcomings of the difficult relationship between the European integration project and national democracies, not to mention the democratic deficit of the EU system itself.
In its own way, the Brexit referendum is presenting the same experience but with a force and a speed not seen previously. Maybe another illustration of British exceptionalism?