Diplomacy |Essay

Could Brexit be reversed? A view from across the Channel

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JS

Jean-Jacques Subrenat

"@Dan, Winston Churchill died in 1965;..."
DM

Dan Marsh

"I am familiar with Winston Churchill'..."
JS

Jean-Jacques Subrenat

"Hello Dan, as you must know, writing ..."
DM

Dan Marsh

"I have to say that I do find this art..."

Until three months ago, any mention of halting Brexit seemed blasphemous. In June 2017, Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, hinted that London’s decision to exit the EU might somehow be reversed, but he did not offer any recipe.

Since then, some British politicians have questioned last year’s referendum outcome: Sadiq Khan, the elected mayor of London, has suggested that Labour contemplate a second referendum, and Vince Cable, the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, has called for a halt to the Brexit process altogether. And a poll conducted in September 2017 shows that the idea of a second referendum on Brexit is gaining ground.

While reversing Brexit might seem unlikely, it is not beyond the realms of possibility. The Treaty on the European Union provides that “Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements” (article 50.1). The treaty further states that a country intending to withdraw “shall notify the European Council of its intention” and that “the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union” (50.2). But the Treaty says nothing about changed circumstances which might lead to rescinding the notification to withdraw. As we say in French, “ce qui n’est pas interdit est permis” (Anything not prohibited is permissible). Indeed, there is now an awareness in the UK that implementing Brexit, come what may, would not be a consequence of the European Treaty, but a purely British political decision.

Reversing Brexit would be difficult, but possible

The UK retains the option to rescind the letter sent by Theresa May to Donald Tusk on 20 March 2017. Downing Street would certainly know how to put a positive spin on a second letter announcing that divorce proceedings are off. But what would it take to actually reverse Brexit?

  • The general view is that this would require another referendum, which neither Labour nor the Conservatives seem willing to contemplate at this stage. Would a vote in Westminster be an alternative?
  • Brexit negotiations were launched in June 2017. The further these negotiations are carried forward, the less likely their suspension or termination. A window of opportunity may exist, probably not beyond the latter part of 2017.
  • As a first step, one could imagine London requesting a ”suspension” of the Brexit negotiations for a stated period in order to organize a new vote in Westminster and/or a new referendum. This would require a large-scale truth campaign setting out the consequences of leaving or remaining, followed by a well-organized consultation in which outside influences and hacking would be severely curtailed. The idea of a suspension is quite different from the 2-year transition period suggested by the British Prime Minister on 22 September 2017.

Because Britain’s relations with the EU have already been damaged, simply reversing Brexit would not suffice to restore the UK’s credibility and influence in the EU. If Britain thinks of ”remain” as a serious option, it might consider engaging positively in crucial areas for the EU’s future, such as a coordinated migration policy with appropriate funding, a joint environment and energy policy, further steps towards European security and defense, monetary and fiscal coordination, as well as structural reforms currently under consideration in the EU, especially between Germany and France.

The EU and its member states would welcome a reversal of Brexit, but are no longer interested in simply reverting to ”business as usual”.

Out of the EU, closer to the US? Not so sure.

Seen from the continent, the implementation of Brexit would deprive the UK of much it has gained since 1973 when Edward Heath signed the UK’s accession to the EEC, and that includes global influence. Henry Kissinger, the untiring oracle, predicted that ”Brexit will bring the UK closer to the U.S.”, but he failed to say where the United States will be a few years down the road, with or without President Trump.

Reversing Brexit is difficult by any measure. Could Britain achieve such a turnaround? In France, against heavy odds, Emmanuel Macron created a new political situation in which the Socialist Party imploded and Les Républicains descended into internecine strife. As the French candidate whose 2017 presidential campaign most explicitly called for a consolidated EU, Macron’s election is likely to lend credence to a pro-EU agenda well beyond France’s borders. In Germany, the federal elections of 24 September 2017 have handed Angela Merkel a fourth term as Federal Chancellor, and she will probably want to go down in history as one of the renewers of the EU. Pursuing his chosen path, Emmanuel Macron laid out his views on the European Union for the coming decade at the EU leaders’ meeting in Tallinn (Estonia) on 28 September 2017.

Could the UK engage in a profound updating of its views of what the EU really stands for, like the one President Macron has initiated in France? The initiative launched in 2016  by Gina Miller and Deir Dos Santos, which at first seemed unlikely to succeed, was vindicated by the High Court in London, and as a result the British Prime Minister was obliged to consult Parliament before formally launching Brexit. Could the bold action of Miller and Dos Santos, which had an important but narrower aim, be emulated on a larger scale so as to reverse Brexit? Seen from the across the Channel, reversing Brexit is indeed daunting, but possible. It would also provide a unique opportunity for an in-depth renewal of the European Union.


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A former French ambassador. Does volunteer work on global issues, public policies, international affairs, ethics, Internet governance.

History for stories "Could Brexit be reversed? A view from across the Channel"

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06 February 2018

• (view) . . Comment: Feedback on everything please!‎; 01:14:03, 06 Feb 2018 . . John Towler (talk | contribs)‎‎ ( Comment -> Hi Miguel, if by the user panel you mean the menu that appears under my user name (after logging in), then there is no "stories" in my user panel. Maybe I'm just being really obtuse but I 'm still unable to see any "Draft" stories. )

12 January 2018

29 November 2017

09 November 2017

09:52:29, 09 Nov 2017 . .‎ Jean-Jacques Subrenat (Updated → added ''further steps towards'' European defence and security.)

04 November 2017

23:42:45, 04 Nov 2017 . .‎ Jean-Jacques Subrenat (Updated → Punctuation.)

Talk for Story "Could Brexit be reversed? A view from across the Channel"

Talk about this Story

  1. Flagged as bias

    I struggle to see the value of another speculative piece about ignoring the will of the majority. Constant calls to not Brexit from the people that believe they’re benefiting from the status quo, and renewed calls to get it done from the people that believe they’re adversely affected by EU laws/regulation/bureaucracy are not news.

    The narrative that pro-Brexit voters were somehow tricked, are stupid, or now regret their decision is not necessarily a fact-based one. Those in power naturally wish to remain in power, and have the loudest voices. WikiTribune is doing a disservice to its mission if it continues to serve as an echo chamber to the powers that be.

    1. Rewrite

      @Chris, the ”view from across the Channel” is not just ”another speculative piece”. It does 3 things: it is a reminder that a reversal of Brexit, if initiated by the UK, would not contradict the EU Treaties; it points at the probable lessened influence of the UK globally, if outside the EU; and it suggests that if the UK were to rescind its divorce letter, the situation thus created could bring about the improvements to the EU that have long been called for in London.

      1. Other

        I have to say that I do find this article somewhat biased, and yes, speculative.

        1) The only newspaper source used is the Guardian, which is a pro-EU paper.
        2) There’s far more to this than what rules do or do not exist in a treaty. What about the will of the people? Ignoring that has resulted in riots in the past. The poll tax riots of 1990 for example.
        3) The phrase “one could imagine” surely implies speculation.
        4) There seems to be an assumption that the result would be different the second time round, and so no mention of the considerable political risk that a second referendum would mean. How foolish would the government look if the result was still Brexit? Mass resignations, and even more damage done?
        5) A second referendum is likely to fuel further economic chaos at least until it takes place. Stock markets really don’t like drawn-out uncertainty.

        1. Rewrite

          Hello Dan, as you must know, writing about current affairs requires some mention of possible future developments, even if they may seem ”speculative” to those who do not approve of a policy or relish a possible outcome. Writing only about the past is called history, and even then, there might be some uncertainty. You mention that ”markets” don’t like drawn out uncertainty: rest assured that even outside of markets, there is a demand for clarity about the UK position in the Brexit process it initiated without pressure from any EU country or institution. Apparently you are not entirely familiar with some aspects of the European project since its inception (including a famous statement by Winston Churchill in Zurich in 1946), and it may have escaped your attention that, since joining the EEC in 1973, the UK government has taken part in every decision which could have an impact on Great Britain. You might find it useful to read, here in WikiTribune, https://www.wikitribune.com/story/2017/10/04/european_union/essay-european-union-is-more-than-a-trade-deal-its-a-set-of-ideals/3904/ .

          1. Rewrite

            I am familiar with Winston Churchill’s speeches regarding European unity.

            He supported the basic idea of the EU, but did not want the UK to be a part of it, only a supporter.

            1. Rewrite

              @Dan, Winston Churchill died in 1965; the UK became a member of the (then) EEC in 1973, when Edward Heath was Prime minister, and apparently he was under no foreign constraint, see http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/january/1/newsid_2459000/2459167.stm .

  2. Rewrite

    @John: indeed, in most countries a referendum does not replace the legislative process, but carries political weight. Thanks.

  3. Rewrite

    We should remember that the referendum was called on an ‘advisory only’ basis so the government was not bound to honour the result. There was also a petition raised to amend the EU referendum bill to require a qualified majority rather than an absolute one. The petition did not succeed as far as I recall because of timing rather than debate.

  4. Rewrite

    Nathaniel, I just saw your edits, and thank you for them.

    1. Rewrite

      Sorry Nathaniel, my above remark should have been posted on TALK attached to another Essay, the one on the 2017 Missile Crisis.

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