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.