Since the moment the result of the EU referendum was announced, there have been those who would see it undone. A plebiscite which was designed to put an end to the question of whether Britain should leave the European Union has seemed only to ignite more furious debate after its conclusion than before it.
Though talk of reversing Brexit is common, the practicalities involved and the likelihood of this actually happening are rarely discussed in any detail, but the question is threefold: can Brexit even be reversed at this stage? If it can, is there a valid reason to do so? And if so, do a majority of Brits even want to reverse it?
A List of Wishes and Accusations
Those who wish to overturn the result count within their ranks large swathes of the centrist and left-wing commentariat, a sizeable – though indefinable and ever-changing – number of MPs within all parties and the implied support of the Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats and the Green party.
Those who seek to defend the result sit largely on the right of the political spectrum and receive full-throated backing from most of Britain’s newspapers, including The Sun and Daily Mail, arguably the most influential publications in Britain. Though notably, The New European newspaper, which launched in the wake of the vote has enjoyed relative success on a purely anti-Brexit platform.
There’s an important distinction to be made though, between those who ask legitimate questions about the validity of the vote, and those who would see the decision overturned simply because they dislike the result. Investigations are currently underway regarding spending by Vote Leave, one of the two official campaigns groups advocating to leave the EU.
It’s been alleged that Vote Leave donated money to and then colluded with a number of smaller unofficial campaigns groups, to circumvent strict spending rules. There is nothing to suggest however, that even if Vote Leave are found guilty, the result of the vote will be affected – though it may serve as a boost to voices already calling for a second referendum.
Another key distinction is between those calling for a second referendum on the decision to leave the EU because of issues with the original vote, and those calling for a second referendum on the Brexit deal itself. The latter would not change Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, but merely give parliament a vote on the terms of the deal done by the government with the EU.
What would happen in the event that parliament voted against the deal is unclear, with some speculating it would re-trigger negotiations while some argue it would simply result in a “no-deal” scenario and a reversion to World Trade Organisation rules.
Practicalities As a Less Popular Talking Point
Though there are those on both sides who would suggest the answer is simple, the question of whether Britain could decide to reverse its decision to leave the EU is a difficult one. As with much of the Brexit process, it puts us into uncharted waters, both legally and politically.
Though Britain voted to leave the EU in June of last year, the process wasn’t actually initiated until March 29th this year, when Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty was triggered. Article 50 is the measure by which a member of the EU can decide to leave; it begins a two-year countdown in which the member state must negotiate its terms of its exit.
As no mention of revocation was included in Article 50, it remains unclear whether, once triggered, it can be revoked. Many have conceded that despite no explicit mention of this in the Article, a unanimous vote by all remaining EU members could revoke Article 50. What remains completely unclear is whether the UK could decide to revoke it unilaterally. The author of Article 50, Lord Kerr, stated last year that he believes it can be revoked in this way.
Kerr told the BBC, “It is not irrevocable… You can change your mind while the process is going on.” Before adding: “During that period, if a country were to decide actually we don’t want to leave after all, everybody would be very cross about it being a waste of time… They might try to extract a political price but legally they couldn’t insist that you leave”.
However, speaking to The Telegraph, legal director of Pinsent Masons, Richard Bull rebuked Lord Kerr’s comments.
“Kerr believes his voice outweighs others because he authored Article 50… It does not, however, fall to the authors of legal instruments to decide on their interpretation.”
Though it’s unclear whether the UK could unilaterally revoke article 50, it has been made clear on several occasions that there is a desire for the UK to do so, coming from the EU. Speaking at a joint-press-conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May back in June, French President Emmanuel Macron said that “of course, the door remains open… until the negotiations end”.
More recently, President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, suggested that Brexit could still be overturned when he said in a report to EU leaders that the Brexit negotiations would end “with a good deal, no deal or no Brexit”.
A spokesperson for Theresa May quickly quashed any speculation about a reversal, stating simply that “Brexit is not going to be reversed”. Though many with hopes of seeing the Brexit decision overturned did take Mr Tusk’s comment as a sign that there exists meaningful political will to see Article 50 revoked, if only, for now at least, in Brussels.
The Case(s) for Reversing Brexit
Right across the political spectrum there are those making the case for the Brexit vote to be reversed. Outside Westminster, opinion is still bitterly divided and whilst no political party now explicitly states that it’s intention is to directly overturn the decision to leave the EU, the SNP, Lib Dems and Greens all support the idea of a second referendum with hopes of a different result.
There are many points raised in an attempt to justify overturning the result of the referendum. Some hinge arguments around the fact that debate leading up to the vote was rife with misinformation. Overwhelmingly these arguments cast blame on the Leave side, particularly for certain claims made with regards to immigration, refugees and the use of money saved by leaving the EU being diverted directly to the National Health Service in the event of a Leave vote, which was infamously emblazoned on the side of a campaign bus used by Vote Leave.
Brexiteers however could reasonably argue that misinformation was not unique to their side of the argument and that those on the Remain side were guilty of attempting to scare the British public in to voting Remain. Brexiteers took to referring to Vote Remain as “Project Fear” in a reaction to what many described as unnecessarily gloomy economic forecasts put out by the government, which among other things, predicted an instant-recession in the event of a Leave vote.
Another argument is that the margin by which the Leave side won the vote was not a sufficient mandate to warrant the decision. With a turnout of 72.2% and with 51.9% of those who voted voting to Leave and 48.1% voting to Remain, just over a third of the electorate voted to leave the European Union.
Remainers have pointed to comments made by prominent Brexiteer Nigel Farage prior to the referendum about the need for a second referendum in the event of a very tight result, he told The Mirror:
“In a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way”
Given the result and events since, Farage’s comments do perhaps raise questions of hypocrisy on his part, though there can be no legitimate calls for a second referendum on the basis of them.
It’s worth remembering that despite current Conservative policy, when the referendum was called, David Cameron’s Conservative government largely campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU. The framework for the referendum – which was voted through parliament by 544 to 53 MPs – made no mention of a particular margin of victory which had to be achieved to guarantee a result
Does Britain want to reverse Brexit?
Though polling is only so valuable in ascertaining the true public feeling on an issue as nuanced as Brexit, current polling is typically very tight though it would suggest that a very small majority of the British public think Brexit – in some form – must go ahead, regardless of how they originally voted.
Polling company YouGov has collected much data on what it refers to as “Bregret” – the opinion that Brexit was a bad idea. What they have found, over time, is that whilst the number of people who believe Brexit is a bad idea has risen, a significant number of those who think this, still believe that Brexit must go ahead in some form.
Back in June, before negotiations had truly gotten underway, most of those who voted Remain believed that Brexit must go ahead, either as it was currently proceeding or it should be “softened” – with concessions made on issues like Single Market & Customs Union membership, or immigration.
However, since June, opinion among those who voted Remain seems to have shifted considerably toward either holding a second referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU, or completely abandoning Brexit and re-joining the EU. This shift has not yet been enough to tip public opinion in favour of reversing the result, though if the current trend continues along with the embattled negotiations, then that may not last much longer.
Up for Discussion Rather than Materialization
It’s difficult to reconcile the idea of overturning the democratically expressed will of the people. No matter how well-reasoned and seemingly intelligent the arguments may sound, the inescapable fact is that MPs voted overwhelmingly to have the vote, MPs campaigned for their respective side of the debate and a vote was had; the vote returned a result and the result was to Leave.
To attempt to deviate from this result now without a marked shift in public opinion in favour of remaining – and indeed, even to do so even in that event – could raise serious and far-reaching questions about our democracy and our systems of governance – if the result of a referendum can be ignored and overturned if things do not go a certain way, why not an election?
Though, if we are to compare the referendum to an election in that regards, is seems only reasonable to question how long a mandate achieved in a vote can last before the electorate are required to reaffirm their will? In Britain, the popular vote gives a political party a mandate until the next election – in theory 4 years. So, if, as could quite easily be the case, negotiations and transitional periods go on for a number of years more than this, should a second, final referendum be called then?
These questions and so many more remain unanswerable, indeed the only thing which seems relatively certain is that the fervour with which one group argues to overturn the result and one group to defend it, seemly unlikely to lessen.