A Second Brexit Vote? Some Britons Are Asking For One
It’s been nearly two years since the voters of the United Kingdom voted, by a relatively slim majority, to leave the European Union, thus beginning the process that has come to be known a ‘Brexit.” As a result of that referendum, Prime Minister David Cameron, who had supported remaining in the union, stepped aside as leader of the Conservative Party and was replaced by current Prime Minister Theresa May, who also supported remaining in the E.U. Early last year, as Britain prepared for the beginning of the two-year-long process that the E.U. Treaty requires, Prime Minister May indicated that she would be pushing for a so-called “hard Brexit.” meaning essentially that her Administration would be seeking a full and formal exit from the union rather than something less severe like negotiations that would give the U.K. greater economic autonomy within the Union or something that would allow British and E.U. citizens to continue to enjoy some of the benefits that membership in the union has brought. That process began on March 29th of last year when May formally invoked the provisions of Artice 50 of the E.U. Treaty, thus beginning what will likely be a two-year process of negotiations that will ultimately lead to the end of Great Britain’s membership in the E.U.
Since that time, those negotiations have largely continued behind the scenes, but they haven’t gone without notice in the British press, and there have been at least some signs that many Britons may be having second thoughts about their decision. The best and most recent example of that came in the fall of last year when polling began to indicate that many Brits were beginning to regret their decision and the outcome of the June 2016 referendum, which some in the media have come to dub as “Bregret.” Now, The New York Times reports that there increasing calls for a second vote on leaving the E.U. at the end of the negotiation process before the event actually happens, something that has become increasingly true as the full consequences of Brexit are starting to come to light:
FFORESTFACH, Wales — In a 2016 referendum, Stephanie Holtom voted to leave the European Union, worried about immigration and convinced that other countries were telling the British government what to do.
But outside a supermarket recently in a large, suburban strip mall not far from the Welsh city of Swansea, Ms. Holtom conceded she might have been wrong.
“I agreed to come out of Europe, but I am beginning to have second thoughts. I think it’s a mess, and I’m sick to death of it,” said Ms. Holtom, who is retired, as she collected her shopping cart. She added that, if there were a second referendum, “people would vote to stay.”
Since a majority of Britons voted narrowly to leave the bloc more than 18 months ago, most politicians have treated a withdrawal, known as Brexit, as inviolable. Even amid signs of a slowing economy, few saw signs of a shift in public opinion.
As the political stalemate drags on, and with business leaders issuing ever more urgent alarms about the threats to the economy, growing public doubts are beginning to register in some opinion polls. And opponents of Brexit are quietly cultivating what they see as that rising sentiment in their campaign to soften, if not reverse, the whole process.
They even picked up support from an unexpected quarter when Nigel Farage, the former U.K. Independence Party leader and the leading proponent of Brexit, recently suggested that there might be a second referendum.
Prominent “leavers,” as supporters of Brexit are known, dismiss that possibility out of hand, but it may not be as far-fetched as they would have people believe.
Some time later this year Parliament is likely to face a fateful vote on the actual terms of any agreement Mrs. May can reach with the European Union on Britain’s withdrawal. A defeat in Parliament would prompt a political crisis, very likely topple Mrs. May and possibly prompt a general election. Potentially, that could open the way to a rethink, to new Brexit options, or to a second referendum.
Hard-line supporters (and opponents) of Brexit remain steadfast in their views, but many of the less committed have yet to fully focus on what it will mean and have been turned off by the stream of complex, sometimes contradictory, reports emerging from the tortuous negotiations. “It’s a bit like the O.J. Simpson trial: It keeps going on and on and people tune out of it,” Mr. Awan-Scully added.
And with signs that public opinion is volatile and could be shifting, the political ice is starting to crack.
When Tony Blair, a former prime minister, called last month for another plebiscite, Brexit supporters derided him as a pillar of a failed, elitist, pro-European establishment.
But it was hard to say the same when Mr. Farage suggested there should be another vote. Though Mr. Farage appeared later to retreat on the idea, Arron Banks, a big financial supporter of one of the Leave campaigns, endorsed it as well. For hard-line leave supporters, a referendum is a chance to once and for all kill off the argument to stay, and precipitate a clean break with the bloc.
Pro-Europeans, by contrast, would like a plebiscite on the specific terms of any deal negotiated by Mrs. May’s government, with the option to remain in the bloc if voters
Several things would have to happen to make that a reality, including a change of government policy and, almost certainly, of prime minister.
Some say it is too late to rethink the withdrawal, given that Britain has invoked its two-year exit clause. Others say that to date the shift in British public opinion, if any, is simply not big enough, and that Brexit support remains strong outside the big cities and in many working-class communities.
But the logic of having a second referendum is compelling. The 2016 vote was a choice between leave and remain, yet was silent on the path that Britain should take thereafter.
At the two extremes, these are starkly different prospects. A so-called soft Brexit could keep Britain integrated within the European Union’s economic model and part of its single market and customs union, accepting all its rules, albeit without having a say over them.
A hard Brexit might cut most of those ties, and take the country toward a low regulation, low tax economy — “Europe’s Singapore” — for example.
The problem is that there is no specific democratic mandate for either option, or even for Mrs. May’s preferred (though probably unobtainable) idea of something in between. So any outcome is likely to be contested for years to come.
Within Mrs. May’s government, the implications of Brexit are causing concern, even as hard-line Brexit supporters step up their campaign for a clean break from the bloc.
Following the leak of a government analysis that predicted the British economy would suffer under all of the most likely scenarios, one minister, Phillip Lee, wrote on Twitter that, if the figures were anywhere near right, “there would be a serious question over whether a government could legitimately lead a country along a path that the evidence and rational consideration indicate would be damaging.”
Much of the regret that some Britons are expressing about the idea of leaving the E.U. now involve consequences that could have been easily foreseeable at the time of the referendum. For example, pro-Remainers presented a rather convincing case that leaving the E.U. would end up harming the British economy. Some of that is already being seen in the fact that some European businesses are already talking openly about relocating the operations to the continent after Brexit due to the fact that they would no longer be able to take advantage of the open trade policies that have been a hallmark of the European Union since even before the E.U. itself came into existence. Additionally, many Britons, especially younger ones who have grown up knowing nothing other than a United Kingdom that was part of a greater European community, are beginning to realize that the end of the E.U. likely means an end to the easy travel to and from the continent that they have enjoyed for some two decades now, and that it would also lead to many Europeans who have come to live and work in Great Britain returning home. Finally, there are already signs that London stands to lose much of its status as the leading financial center of Europe, and that power in that regard would shift, most likely to Germany.
As I said, however, all of that was easily foreseeable in June 2016 before the original Brexit referendum, and Brits nonetheless chose to go forward. As I noted above, that referendum resulted in a relatively slim majority choosing to leave the E.U. in a vote that brought roughly 72% of the U.K.’s registered voters to the polls. In the end, the margin in favor of leaving was just under 1.3 million votes, which was just about 2.7% of the total amount of people who voted and 1.9% of the total population of the United Kingdom. As I noted in the wake of the vote last year, that leads to the question of why the vote authorizing the referendum didn’t require some form of a supermajority in favor of leaving given the consequences that the decision would quite obviously have for the U.K. in the future. It’s been pointed out to me that such a supermajority requirement would not have been consistent with the Parliamentary system that governs the United Kingdom, but the same thing can be said about a referendum itself. Additionally, since the terms of any referendum would have to be set by Parliament to begin with there’s no per se bar to the idea that the law authorizing the referendum requiring that a “yes” vote in favor of leaving would require support from more than just a slim majority of the total amount of people who voted. Those issues are in the past, of course, but these poll numbers do seem to indicate that at least some portion of the British public is beginning to think that the decision to leave the E.U. deserved more consideration than it actually received.
The process going forward with regard to Brexit is a complicated one. Before we can even get close to discussing the question of a second Brexit vote, for example, the May government need to complete the negotiations with the European Union over the terms of the United Kingdom’s exit. That process isn’t expected to be over until some time later this year at the earliest, and possibly not until early in 2019. At that point, the deal would go before Parliament for final approval, and it’s likely that Remainers and possibly others will push at that time for a second referendum. How that process will play out, though, is up in the air and its outcome is quite uncertain for several reasons.
First of all, of course, there’s the fact that any such referendum would have to be authorized by Parliament just as the original vote was. Right now, there is no such authorization and its expected that the normal process, which would have the final deal negotiated by May’s government voted on by Parliament rather than being subjected to a referendum. In order for a second vote to proceed, there would have to be authorization granted by Parliament, and it’s unclear if there would be sufficient support for a second vote. Hardline Brexiteers in the ruling Conservative Party seem to be ruling out such an option, and the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn remains as committed to the Brexit option as it has been since the conclusion of the June 2016 referendum and is on the record as opposing a second referendum notwithstanding the fact that many of the younger voters in the Labour coalition seem to be among the strongest voices rising up to question of the wisdom of leaving the E.U. Given that, it’s unclear whether a measure authorizing a second referendum would even pass Parliament as it is currently configured.
That leads us to the second potential crisis point, the possibility that the entire question of approving the final E.U. exit deal, whether it be in Parliament or via a referendum, could lead to a political crisis in Great Britain. If Parliament fails to approve the deal, for example, then it’s likely that this would lead to a third General Election since 2015, and it would likely be one that could bode ill for May’s grip on power. As it stands, May’s position in Parliament is significantly weaker than it was when she took office in no small part due to the fact that the Conservatives lost a significant part of their majority in last June’s hastily called snap election, which May had called in no small party because initial polling had indicated that the Tories stood to sizable increase their position in the House of Commons. Instead, the election ended in a Hung Parliament that forced May to cut a deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to keep her party in power. A third election could end up benefiting the Tories, or it could end up putting Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party in power. As I noted, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is on record opposing the idea of a second referendum, but other forces inside his party take the opposite position and it’s not clear what position the party would take in a future election, especially if the idea of a second referendum becomes more popular among the public at large.
Finally, it’s entirely unclear how the European Union might view all of this. As it stands, the provisions of Article 50 make it next to impossible for a nation that has invoked its provisions to leave the union and gone ahead and negotiated an exit agreement as that provision requires to rethink that decision and remain in the union after all. Some E.U. officials have apparently already stated that once a Brexit deal is negotiated then there is no going back for the United Kingdom and that any bid to remain in the Union would have to involve yet another round of negotiations. Whether the E.U. would retain that position, or simply chose to act as if the previous two or three years had never happened if Great Britain were to suddenly decided to remain in the union after all is a complete unknown at this point. This means, of course, that any second referendum or a General Election that leads to the election of a pro-Remain government in London could end up having no legal impact at all.
However this turns out, it looks as though we’re in for some interesting times in Great Britain and the rest of Europe over the course of the next year.