Given the rhetoric one would expect the mood in Great Britain to be defiant and joyous; they have thrown off the yoke of the EU! But that is not the case, the mood is anxious and regretful, leading yet another new term: Bregret – regret about the Brexit vote.
Once the full implications of leaving the EU started to dawn on the British people, many who voted “leave” or just didn’t vote suddenly voiced regret. Many voted as a protest, others claimed they didn’t realize just what this meant. Given the narrow 3.8% margin of victory, a petition demanding a re-vote has reached 3 million signatures. Only 100,000 are needed to spark the House of Commons to consider the issue, creating hope that maybe Brexit won’t happen after all. It was a vote driven by emotion and nationalism, not economic rationality.
On the other hand, the vote did happen. The margin of victory was slim, but still decisive. Dismissing that and voting again would anger many of the majority who fought hard and won this campaign. So is Brexit a done deal?
To leave the EU Prime Minister David Cameron must inform the European Council (made up of the heads of government of the member states) that Great Britain is invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. The Council then meets to discuss their terms of departure, followed by negotiations with Great Britain to form a final agreement. If no agreement is reached within two years, Great Britain exits anyway – but with no special considerations. Once invoked there is no mechanism to “undo” Article 50 – so once that’s officially proclaimed, it appears the only way back is for Great Britain to someday renegotiate ascension.
Article 50 is not yet invoked. Until it is, anything can happen. The referendum was non-binding. Cameron and the parliament could have made it binding (have the referendum result automatically trigger Article 50), but choose not to. So how might Bregret actually lead to no Brexit?
If this were another state, the preponderance of elite and parliamentary opposition to leaving would mean Article 50 would have no chance. The referendum was “advisory” after all, and given the reaction they could find cover in saying it wasn’t a real reflection of the public will.
But that’s not so easy to do in the UK, thanks to the importance of tradition. Parliament has complete power; no act of parliament can be declared unconstitutional. There are no checks and balances like those in the US. The Prime Minister is both chief executive and head of the legislature. Tradition and doing the right thing are entrenched norms, serving to do for the UK what ‘checks and balances’ accomplishes in the US. The act of defying a referendum risks creating the precedent that parliament disregards tradition and public expectations. This makes it virtually impossible to ignore the referendum.
Still, there are scenarios where Brexit doesn’t happen. If the petition drive and public sentiment builds against leaving, Cameron, whose political career appears to be over anyway, could lay out the argument for a second referendum, trying to root it in British concern for tradition and not to let on errant emotional vote fundamentally harm the state. I see this as the least likely, given what I noted above, but if the clamor for reconsideration grows across the spectrum, Cameron might go for it.
Another scenario builds on the disorder in the parties. Jeremy Corbyn, head of the Labour party, is dealing with a revolt against his leadership. Cameron already says he’ll be out in a few months. Boris Johnson, who campaigned for “leave,” is his likely replacement, but with so many MP’s (members of parliament) pro-EU, he might not be able to garner a majority of conservatives. This could lead to new elections. The Prime Minister can call elections at any point within five years from the last election. To do so he needs a majority vote to dissolve the House of Commons, and the campaign would be short – about four weeks. If a party runs on a clear, “no to Brexit” platform and wins, then it could claim an electoral mandate to ignore the referendum or at least have a re-vote. This is the most likely scenario to avoid Brexit, though it’s still a long shot.
Even more unlikely, but possible, is a route created by powers Parliament has given local legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Theoretically, any application of EU law to these parts of the UK needs local approval, including the invocation of Article 50. Voters in Northern Ireland and Scotland rejected Brexit, and their parliaments might vote to essentially veto Brexit. If that happened, the House of Commons could either override that veto (alter the powers given to the local parliaments) or use it as an excuse NOT to invoke Article 50. This route would be the trickiest on both legal and political grounds – can Northern Ireland or Scotland veto the will of the English and Welsh?
By delaying the invocation of Article 50, Cameron is allowing the political backlash to gain strength and thus creates a distinct possibility that Brexit can be avoided. If Bregret grows, pressure mounts on the government to find a way to stay in the EU. So is it a done deal? No. The odds are still very high that Brexit will happen, but we’re in uncharted territory.