Four ways the UK can reverse Brexit if it really, really wants to

Let’s kiss and make up.
Let’s kiss and make up.
Image: Reuters/Hannibal Hanschke/
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Millions woke up in the UK today wondering whether Brexit was just a bad dream. It wasn’t. Though 16.1 million voted to keep the UK in the European Union (EU), more than 17.4 million voted to leave.

You’d expect that this populist mandate means the UK has no choice but to start the process of leaving the EU. But that doesn’t have to be the case. There are four difficult, but not impossible, ways to reverse the people’s decision on Brexit.

1. Ignore the vote

Though a majority of the British have said they don’t want to remain part of the EU, the referendum result does not bind the government legally to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which sets out the formal steps to be taken to leave the EU.

However, it is unlikely that the current government will take the bold step of ignoring the vote. UK prime minister David Cameron has already said that he will honor the voters wishes (paywall).

And, yet, according to the legal commentator David Allen Green, “The fact is that the longer the Article 50 notification is put off, the greater the chance it will never be made at all. This is because the longer the delay, the more likely it will be that events will intervene or excuses will be contrived.”

Update: A member of parliament took to social media today to suggest one way to ignore the Brexit vote:

2. Sign a petition

Almost 1.6 million people, and counting, have signed a petition that asks the government to add a rule to the Brexit vote-counting that would trigger another referendum. The petitioners want the UK government to accept a leave vote only if 60% vote to leave and there is at least a 75% voter turnout. With more than 100,000 signatures, the Parliament is now bound to debate the petition.

But even if many more people sign the petition, the government is unlikely to hold a second referendum. The demand in the petition has little precedent, when compared to referendum rules across the world. Only small countries have rules that ask for greater than 60% vote or more than 75% voter turn out.

3. Another general election

The Fixed Term Parliament Act provides for two ways to trigger a new general election, via a no-confidence motion or if two-thirds of members of the House of Commons resolve to have an early election.

If, in such a general election, a party fought with a clear pro-remain agenda and won, that, according to lawyer Jo Maugham, would be enough to supersede the referendum vote. This way, the referendum will be respected as a democratic mandate, but then replaced with a new democratic mandate.

There is little chance, however, of another election. The left-leaning Labour Party and the right-leaning Conservative Party are both divided on whether to leave or remain, as well as everything else, so they’re unlikely to unite in calling for a new general election.

4. A significant change in conditions

This is the most likely route by which Brexit could be reversed.

Currently, the UK is part of the EU’s single market, which in return for following EU regulations, allows the UK to trade within the EU with far fewer barriers. Over the next two years, after the Article 50 notification is given and the UK decides to leave the EU, there will be negotiations with the EU to set up trade deals and other rules, so that the UK, despite leaving the EU, can continue to trade with EU countries.

During such negotiations, if the EU were to offer a tempting deal—say, one that allows the UK to remain in the single market while putting some restrictions on the freedom of movement of EU citizens (since migration was a big issue that riled British voters to favor leaving the EU)—then that would represent a ”significant change” in conditions.  Since the British people voted to leave the current arrangement with the EU, a new arrangement would give the UK government a reason to go back to its people for a second referendum. Presumably it would do so only if there appeared to be a greater chance for the “remain” vote to win in that scenario.

The tricky question here is whether, after triggering Article 50, the UK can actually still remain part of the EU. One interpretation is that once the Article 50 process has started Britain could only stay in the block if the 27 other members all agreed to allow it. Maugham argues, however, that EU law bends towards pragmatism and that the organization would likely find a way to allow the UK to use this path to remain part of the EU.

In the EU but not part of the EU

If none of the above happen, there is still a chance that the UK might do a Norway. In that position, the UK will remain part of the single market and thus allow the freedom of movement for UK citizens to the EU and vice versa.

This way the UK will gain special status within EU, which means it will be bound by far fewer EU laws and regulations. It also means, however, that the UK will not have much of say in how the EU makes the few laws that will apply to the UK.