Preventing Brexit is still possible: Here’s how

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The only realistic solution to avoid a UK exit from the European Union would be to go back to the British people after the conclusion of the UK-EU negotiations in 2019 and argue that they should have the final say on the deal, writes Fraser Cameron.

Fraser Cameron is a former European Commission official and Senior Advisor with Cambre Associates, a Brussels-based, integrated public relations and public affairs consultancy.

The UK’s reputation for political stability and good governance was overturned at a stroke by David Cameron’s irresponsible decision, taken for internal party political reasons, to hold a binary referendum on Brexit.

As the consequences of Brexit will be extremely serious, is there a way to prevent it from happening? The only realistic way is for Theresa May to go back to the British people after the conclusion of the UK-EU negotiations in 2019 and argue that they should have the final say on the deal especially as circumstances have changed and the EU has reformed itself.

The chances of this happening are small, probably not more than five per cent at this stage, but not impossible. Whether it would succeed or not will depend on the nature of the deal, how the EU develops, the state of the UK economy and Theresa May’s leadership capabilities.

Political Confusion

To say that the British political class was unprepared for the seismic shock Brexit is an understatement. The haunted faces of leading Brexiteers like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove the day after the referendum spoke volumes about the lack of preparation.

To be sure, Brits voted 52% that the UK ‘should’ leave the EU but they were not asked how, or when, or under what conditions (e.g. hard v soft Brexit) it would be appropriate to leave. It is obvious that Theresa May and her Cabinet still have no idea.

One of the immediate consequences was a possible second Scottish referendum on independence. But the chances of this happening anytime soon are quite small given the dramatic drop in oil prices, the inability to decide between the euro and the pound, the lukewarm support for Scotland going it alone (latest polls show 48% in favour) and concerns about whether they would have a fast-track accession to the EU. Nor could Edinburgh block a Brexit deal as the 1998 devolution act states that all EU affairs are handled by Westminster.

But a hard Brexit could change the equation and a second Scottish referendum cannot be excluded.

What Parliamentary Sovereignty?

To the surprise of most continentals, the British have no written constitution. Parliament is sovereign and makes up the rules for elections and referenda on an individual basis. The Brexit referendum was advisory but the idea had been included in the Conservative election manifesto of 2015 and hence was deemed to be politically binding – even by Jeremy Corbyn.

It is not clear what role parliament should play in the Brexit negotiations. The government has stated that it does not require parliamentary approval to trigger Article 50. There are talks about establishing a joint Commons/Lords committee to monitor the negotiations. But the government may be wary of the Lords’ involvement as they are overwhelmingly pro-EU and likely to pose awkward questions.

Finally, the government will need to secure passage of the Brexit deal and the accompanying huge legislative changes in parliament. There has been speculation that many pro-EU MPs could reject the deal thus allowing the UK to stay in the EU. While some MPs may be tempted most would worry about challenges by UKIP to their seats at the next general election. One cannot rely, therefore, on parliament to prevent Brexit.

The 5% possibility

Assuming Article 50 is triggered early in 2017 and the negotiations last two years there should be a deal on the table by the spring of 2019 – a year before the next UK general election. Let us further assume that there is a hard Brexit (increasingly likely) and that the British economy is faltering with a loss in foreign investment, rising unemployment and banks leaving the City because of lack of passporting facilities.

In these circumstances, May could argue that the deal negotiated by her three Brexit musketeers (Johnson, Davis and Fox) was not as good as they or she had hoped and that the British people should now have the final say through a further referendum on whether the deal should be accepted or whether Britain should stay in a (hopefully) reformed EU.

The Brexiteers would cry foul but the intervening two years would have further exposed the lies on which they won the referendum. And if May were to persuade Johnson to change sides, perhaps hinting that she would favour him as her successor, then there would be a good chance of winning a second referendum.

It would take considerable courage for May to go down this road and it probably only merits a five per cent chance. But it would earn her a place in history as the Iron Lady who maintained the unity of the UK and kept Britain in the EU.

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