Brexit may never happen

A week ago today I posted on Facebook my ‘considered’ response to the EU referendum result: ‘Britain is fucked’ it read, capturing my end-of-the-world feeling. A week on—and certainly the most turbulent and dramatic week in British politics in my lifetime—and about the only thing that is clear is that nobody really knows what is going to happen. At best we can make only educated but partially informed guesses. (Partially informed because most information either about the referendum itself—for example, who voted and why—or about the immediate course of events—for example, who will win the Conservative party leadership contest, or how EU politicians are going to act—is unavailable). Like any guess, mine could well turn out to be wrong. History, after all, tells us that little is ever fully predictable, and that any number of factors can rapidly transform a situation. But for what it’s worth my guess is that Brexit will not happen.

This may simply be wishful thinking. I voted Remain and am strongly anti-Brexit for various reasons (which I have written about elsewhere). I do not intend to rehearse here why I think it is legitimate to oppose Brexit and work towards preventing it, except to make two general points. First, we live in a democracy and an open society (yes, I know both labels can be qualified but let’s not get too picky here), in which the right to express one’s views is valued and protected. Brexiteers may disagree with and oppose my position and arguments, but they are not entitled to shut down debate nor to stop campaigners from actively working for what they believe. Simply telling people to ‘accept the result’ will not do when nothing has actually been decided yet. Secondly, for a number of reasons I am not persuaded that the referendum is an example of ‘good’ democracy. This is undoubtedly a difficult argument, but I have written elsewhere (as have many others) about the legal, constitutional and democratic problems with the referendum. These problems deserve, at the very least, serious consideration as part of the ongoing debate.

There is a path to stopping Brexit. It is certainly not an easy one (but no path right now is), and it will depend on all sorts of factors aligning, but it is plausible—and we have already taken the first steps down it.

The first step, somewhat paradoxically, involved doing nothing. One of the few simplicities of the situation is this: in order for Brexit to happen, Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty has to be invoked, thereby formally triggering a departure from the EU; until it is, there is no Brexit. Throughout the referendum campaign David Cameron insisted that, in the event of a Leave victory, he would within hours invoke Article 50. Not only did he not do this, but he also said that he would not do it, instead choosing to resign and toss this particular grenade to his successor.

This was a smart move (Cameron—a disastrous Prime Minister to be sure—has always been at his limited best when doing nothing). It buys time, a precious commodity when the stakes are so high. Leaving the EU would be a momentous decision affecting many millions both now and for generations to come, and whether one wants to remain or leave there is little sense in rushing the decision or allowing hotheads like Nigel Farage to dictate the agenda. By announcing he would be doing nothing, Cameron, perhaps finally realizing the gross folly of his referendum, was opening up the possibility that a way might be found to prevent the impending disaster he had done so much to create.

The response to Cameron’s move (or, more accurately, non-move) further suggests that minds are turning to how Brexit may be avoided. Although, in the aftermath of the vote, a few EU voices called for Britain to clarify its position quickly, these have now died down; instead, calmer heads are recognizing that the best course right now is patience. It is anyway clear that nothing can happen before September at the earliest, when a new Prime Minister will be in place.

The most likely successor to Cameron is Theresa May, an instinctively Eurosceptic Tory but one who nominally campaigned on the Remain side during the referendum. She is a sensible, pragmatic and highly competent politician; indeed, her low profile during the referendum is evidence of her smartness as a politician, since she steered clear of the Tory civil war, bolstering her credentials as a future unifier of the party. May has said that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, a statement which, if scrutinized for a few seconds, is actually fairly meaningless, but one which she has to make: in order to win the Tory leadership she needs to reassure the Eurosceptic-inclined grassroots of the party. But she has also indicated that, should she be the next Prime Minister, any negotiations to leave the EU would not begin at least until the end of the year. She, too, is finding ways to buy time.

So it is unlikely that anything will happen in relation to Article 50—and, therefore, that Brexit will even begin moving towards reality—before 2017. Taking time over this is good in itself: the situation is unprecedented, and it is apparent (and also somewhat incredible) that no-one, least of all those on the Leave side, had any coherent plan about what to do in the event of a vote for Leave. What it means is that the debate stays open, rendering the referendum as simply one event (possibly crucial, possibly not) within a longer discussion and political process over the question of Europe. Both sides have, therefore, the opportunity to mobilize and continue the campaign.

For the anti-Brexit side that will involve making a strong case against leaving the EU—and a stronger and more persuasive case than was made by Remain during the referendum campaign—and putting pressure on parliament. Britain is, after all, a parliamentary democracy, and ultimately it is parliament, not the Prime Minister nor a simple majority of the people, who determines if and when Article 50 is invoked.

The parliamentary numbers are on the side of anti-Brexit: in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords there is a clear majority for Remain. Of course, neither MPs nor Lords are in an enviable position. Whether they choose to adhere to their conscience, to their sense of the national interest, to the apparent will of the majority, to their party, to their constituents, or to their personal political ambitions will doubtless involve tortuous individual decision-making. But one can be sure of one thing: parliament will not act as a simple rubber stamp. Nor should it: the question of EU membership is the most important in recent British political history, and the referendum result, while delivering a small majority to leave the EU, seems some way off providing a clear and definitive answer.

More time also allows the EU to formulate its own strategy to encourage Britain to remain. The EU cannot, of course, force Britain to remain, but it can help give Remainers room to manoeuvre. Publicly the EU has categorically stated that there will be no informal negotiations with Britain, a sensible position which ensures that Britain is seen to have full responsibility for its decision. But one can be confident that privately there will be discussions, as well as energetic activity, that explore all the options. There are already signs of the EU sending out low-key messages that give hope to the anti-Brexit position: Helmut Kohl’s call for Europe not to act in haste over Brexit; and the careful support from Slovakia, which holds the current EU presidency, for any moves towards reversing Brexit, as well as Nicolas Sarkozy’s suggestion that Europe as a whole should have a referendum on border controls and freedom of movement, key grievances for Brexiteers that may help turn the heads among some of their number.

There is much, therefore, still to play for, and various possible outcomes. One path to Remain may be this: the next Prime Minister, aware of the constitutional and political difficulties of invoking Article 50, decides that the only reasonable way ahead will be through a general election during which the electorate can be presented with various worked-out courses of action. There is a good democratic argument to be made for insisting that the country must go to the polls before any Prime Minister (least of all one who is being elected by that small subset of the population, members of the Conservative party) invokes Article 50 and sets about negotiating an exit. After all, the referendum only posed the superficially simple question of whether to leave the EU; it did not ask what should be done in the event of leaving. But this is clearly an important question that should be voted on; for example, the public has not been consulted on whether Britain should remain a member of the single market, and it quickly became apparent during the campaign that nobody knew whether a vote to leave meant a vote to leave the single market.

This highlights one of the fundamental flaws of the referendum: a vote for Leave can mean so many things—the Norway option, the Norway-plus option, the Swiss option, the Canada/Australia option, or something else all together—none of which have been presented to the electorate in any manifesto. Given this, the result practically demands a further vote, possibly in a second referendum over the British negotiating position and what exactly is Britain deciding to leave, but preferably in a general election. Concerted pressure should be put on parliament and the government to recognize this: Article 50 should not be invoked without a democratic mandate and parliamentary approval for where any negotiations may lead.

I would contend that this is both a reasonable and plausible way ahead. It does not guarantee that Brexit will not happen. It might, but at the very least there should be public consultation over what Brexit means and entails. But further public consultation allows the Remain side to regroup and campaign against Brexit, with the realistic possibility that Brexit itself will be reconsidered. And to reiterate what I wrote above: in a free and democratic society, it is entirely appropriate for people to continue campaigning for what they believe in—Brexiteers cannot claim that the referendum result somehow gives them a monopoly of the debate or the politics.

Of course, there are so many variables that any number of outcomes are still possible. The past week would seem to illustrate Lenin’s comment that ‘there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen’. And we’ve got several months ahead of us in which countless things may happen. Whether Gove or May (or, more improbably, one of the other three) wins the Tory leadership contest; the voices coming from Europe; the financial markets and economic forecasts; whether Donald Trump wins the US presidential election; whether Labour can form a coherent opposition—all of these are examples of factors that could affect the course of events. And there is always a high chance of completely unpredictable events that are impossible to factor in but which could transform the situation.

Finally, it is worth noting that a large part, but by no means all, of the Establishment oppose Brexit—and the Establishment traditionally finds a way of securing its ends. I do not make that point approvingly; I merely note it as a further reason for doubting whether Brexit will ever happen. Still, one ought to be honest. As an opponent of Brexit myself, I am not dismayed that on this issue the Establishment share my views. Brexit creates some fascinatingly odd alignments: many millions of voters who identify as anti-Establishment found themselves lined up on the same side as Cameron, the banks, the City, and so on. That in no way dilutes their anti-Establishment position; EU membership was never the right issue to do battle with the Establishment. (The real question for the anti-Establishment is this: are you a nationalist or an internationalist? If the latter, then you should campaign to stay in the EU and fight the battle more widely across Europe, by, for example, working towards reform of the EU itself.)

If my assessment of the situation is correct (and it may well not be), then there is a reasonable chance that Brexit will not happen. There are good arguments for why it should not happen; there are moves, whether intentional or not, to buy time that increases the chances of it not happening; there are perfectly democratic and constitutional ways for preventing it from happening; and there is a potentially powerful combination of Establishment and anti-Establishment voices who can stop it from happening. For now, at least, nothing has been decided. If this was a football match, Brexit would be leading 1-0—with the second half about to start.

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