Regrexit, or indefinite postponement?

David Cameron, Prime Minister of the UK, arrived at the European Council meeting in Brussels on 28 June 2016. Photo: The Prime Minister's Office / Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
David Cameron, Prime Minister of the UK, arrived at the European Council meeting in Brussels on 28 June 2016. Photo: The Prime Minister's Office / Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
David Cameron, Prime Minister of the UK, arrived at the European Council meeting in Brussels on 28 June 2016, shortly after the Brexit referendum. Photo: The Prime Minister's Office / Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
David Cameron, Prime Minister of the UK, arrived at the European Council meeting in Brussels on 28 June 2016. Photo: The Prime Minister’s Office / Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The vote in favour of Brexit in the British referendum of 23 June has wrought devastation on the British political stage. So much so that it is not inconceivable that the UK’s departure from the EU will never actually happen. Much will depend on what transpires in British politics; and on the firmness of the stance of the EU and its institutions. The EU, which is effectively a large exercise in looking ahead (not to guess the future but to construct it) and the governments of the member states have taken observers aback not so much by their surprise as their lack of foresight. They have postponed dealing with the issue until September, at the earliest.

British political crisis

The Conservative Party has been plunged into crisis. We will have to wait until after the summer to see who is elected as leader and Prime Minister. After the irresponsible and populist Boris Johnson pulled out, Theresa May, currently Home Secretary, seems to stand a good chance; she was a member of the Remain camp, albeit a prudent one, since she has explicitly said ‘Brexit means Brexit’. If the job goes to Michael Gove, a neo-conservative leader of the Brexit campaign who claimed that he was not seeking the office of PM, it will be worse. It does not seem that a split in the Tories is on the cards, however; if there is an early general election, as seems likely, many of their MPs will have to contest them directly in constituencies, especially in England (although not London), where the electorate voted for Leave.

The Labour Party is also in chaos owing to the weak leadership of Jeremy Corbyn on Brexit and his scant chances for success in an election. A large majority of the parliamentary group have rebelled against their leader, although he can count on grass roots that have undergone in-depth renewal since the last defeat at the polls; he still retains the support of the majority of members, although according to some opinion polls it has diminished. Unlike in the 1980s, there are no clear leaders to head a split in the Labour Party. There will be the sad spectacle of two Labour Parties cohabiting under the same roof.

Everything suggests that until these questions are resolved, and until early elections have been held, with Brexit being the central issue, London will hold off from invoking the famous Article 50 of the Treaty of the EU: this will mark a turning point, the decision to leave, and start the countdown to exit. With new leaders and a different parliament the situation may change, and give rise in time to another referendum, possibly on the conditions negotiated for leaving the EU. And what happens if the voters reject them? It is worth remembering that the UK does not have a written constitution, and has considerable room for manoeuvre in consequence.

Factors of regret

There is a perceptible degree of political regret (‘regrexit’), in which a number of factors are in evidence. To begin with there is the division of the country, between the most dynamic part of society –London and the young who, when they voted at all, voted in favour of Remain– pitted against their elders and the more rural parts of England, which voted to Leave. There is also the prospect of a Scottish separation as a means of remaining in the EU. This would be the end of the UK and also a certain imperial notion that still persists. The circumstances are utterly distinct from those of the last independence referendum, and will delight many constitutionalists –the late lamented Francisco Rubio Llorente would have been in his element– since while it is true that the EU is a union of states, it is also a union of nations and citizens. For the Scots it is not a matter of leaving and re-entering, but rather remaining in the Union.

Another factor may be the significance of the referendum itself, which (unlike the Scottish one) was consultative, and for which David Cameron did not want clear rules, in the Canadian style, with an overwhelming majority; because although Leave won by 52% to 48%, and there was a high turnout (72%), the vote for Brexit represented slightly over one third of the British electorate. The 55% of votes in favour that the EU itself demanded of Montenegro to become independent of Serbia was not reached. Also playing their part are the lies told by the Brexiters about how the millions of pounds they were going to save the UK in its contributions to the EU could be used to finance the sacrosanct National Health Service, how immigration was going to be halted and Turkey was going to enter, among other similar claims.

Firmness of the EU

The rest of the EU, the 27 and their institutions, refuse to enter into advance talks with London prior to Article 50 being triggered. They have made it clear, first, that if the UK wants full access to the EU’s internal market it will also have to allow free movement of workers, like Norway. In the end, the most that is going to be offered to the British is a status such as the latter’s: to sign up to the internal market and its four freedoms (free movement of goods, services, capital and workers, despite what has been promised, and if not, it will be tougher), including paying for, but not participating in, the decisions that will have to be applied. At the moment London still wields the power of being able to decide whether to push the Article 50 eject button or not, but the 27, and the Commission and the European Parliament, have the power to determine the type of relations the UK –if it is still united– will have with Brussels. If they start, they are going to be asymmetrical negotiations. They also need to dissuade others from following the same path.

The EU is aware that, if there are negotiations, they will be about both divorce from the UK and the future of Europe. With two sensitive questions: some countries may take advantage of the situation to water down the EU (such as the Slovakian Presidency, which began on 1 July and has convened a summit on Brexit and the future of Europe in September); and the possible attempts by the next British government, in order to remain, to demand more than was offered to Cameron prior to the referendum.

All of which means that, although the referendum signifies the reversibility of the European project, what takes place in the UK may signify the reversibility of the referendum. The populist and anti-European press has understood this well and is launching a campaign against what the Daily Mail, for example, calls the plot against Brexit.

Treat it as irreversible

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel, without making a big deal of it, treats Brexit as ‘irreversible’. She does well to say so. First, because life in the EU has to continue on this premise and a renewal of the project is going to be designed on such a basis. And second, because it is the way to achieve, if such a thing is possible, the opposite. The only way for it not to happen is to ensure that the exit conditions negotiated are overwhelmingly worse than being in. This is the only way a future British Premier with leadership can hold fresh elections with a new referendum in the manifesto prior to confirming departure.

As Denis MacShane, the former Labour Minister for Europe under Tony Blair, points out, ‘the Battle for Britain and the battle against Brexit is not over’. Many things are in flux. We will see. But we should not take anything for granted. In any case, haste always makes for a bad counsellor. But nor is it wise to postpone it indefinitely, since this will generate uncertainty.