Exit from Brexit: a roadmap

, by Juuso Järviniemi

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Exit from Brexit: a roadmap
Last year the traffic sign to describe Brexit was the “Exit” one. Maybe next year it will be “Stop” instead.

Earlier on The New Federalist, Ian Beckett wrote about the possibility of an exit from Brexit. He imagined a scenario where British public opinion changes so that it wishes to remain in the EU. He then proceeded to argue that none of the potential arrangements enabling Britain to stay in the EU would be acceptable to both the EU and the British public opinion. As is evident, half the argument is based on a logical fallacy: even if the British public opinion changed to favour EU membership, it would not favour EU membership.

Whether it’s likely that the public opinion in Britain will change perhaps depends on which side you ask. A Brexiteer will tell you that that won’t happen because Brexit will be glorious; a Remainer will tell you that, as the pound keeps falling, the penny will drop any moment [1]. As a pro-European living and thus inevitably campaigning in the UK, and as someone who hasn’t had enough of experts, I want to believe in the latter. A couple of months ago on The New Federalist, I wrote that a Bremain induced by a genuine change in British public opinion would be the best outcome for Britain and for Europe. I called an exit from Brexit a long shot, and many things still need to happen for Bremain to become reality. Nevertheless, a roadmap already exists, and it’s progressively becoming easier to read.

Hung parliament and a call to think again

Within the last seven days, I have attended public talks by Alyn Smith, the SNP MEP famous for his “Do not let Scotland down now” speech, and Willie Rennie, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Both explicitly called for a second referendum on Brexit after the terms of departure have been agreed – for the public to have a final say on the deal. Support for a second referendum has also emerged among high-profile Labour figures in the last few days, as Kezia Dugdale who until recently led Scottish Labour spoke in favour of the idea, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan kept the door open for it.

All of this is very significant. If the Tory minority government collapses and Britain is headed for new government formation talks or a general election, ambivalence among Labour combined with a clear position among the Liberal Democrats and SNP could well yield a British government platform embracing the idea of a second referendum. It’s everything but unimaginable that after a new general election, there might be a hung parliament [2] where Labour has the best chance of forming the government. According to a YouGov survey conducted between September 22 and September 24, Labour would now win 43% of the vote in the general election, while the Conservatives would be left with 39%. For comparison, in the June election that returned a hung parliament, the Conservatives beat Labour with 36.8% of the vote against 30.4%.

What might happen would be the Liberal Democrats and SNP demanding a second referendum as a condition for their support for a Labour government. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader who has appeared recalcitrant even to the idea of staying in the Single Market, might represent a problem for this scenario. However, accepting a demand favoured by many among one’s own party in order to enter Number 10 – a vision so distant for Corbyn only two years ago – is far from being the worst deal on offer for a British politician these days.

Second referendum: concessions, approval and applause

The next step, of course, would be the referendum itself. It has been anticipated that if Britain were to reverse Brexit after everything we have experienced since 2016, it would come at a cost. Asked about what concessions EU27 might want to ask of Britain in exchange for accepting its notification of Article 50 withdrawal, Alyn Smith expected the concessions to concern rather the UK’s opt-outs from policy areas such as Justice and Home Affairs than Eurozone or Schengen membership, or the rebate. The rebate is always agreed on separately in negotiations on the EU Multiannual Financial Framework, and would therefore not need to be covered in this context, whereas the euro and Schengen would be politically too touchy questions for various reasons. Ideally, any concessions that may be required of the UK would of course be known by the voters before they go to the polls to voice their opinion on the Brexit deal. We should also hope that the public isn’t misleadingly told that giving an extra £350 million a week to the EU is one of the concessions.

As Willie Rennie put it, Britain has now “seen the dark side”. After what the country has experienced since the referendum, and what it is yet to experience, reason would dictate that Britain should seize its opportunity to remain in the EU. According to the YouGov poll cited above, 45% of those surveyed thought, in retrospect, that the vote to leave the EU was a mistake, with 44% thinking it was the right choice.

As the Brexit poll shows, Britain remains a divided country as ever, and even a second referendum would not settle the question for good (especially if Nigel Farage subsequently embarked on violent insurgency). However, if Britain chose to remain a part of the EU in a second referendum, at least it would be a divided country which most recently, informed by a taster of what Brexit might feel like, gave a mandate for Bremain in a plebiscite. It would also be a country which eventually chose to hear the experts after all. If Remainers lost the second referendum, on the other hand, political cartoonists on the continent would be guaranteed inspiration for weeks to come. And after mourning for a while, pro-Europeans would rise from the ashes and continue making the case for Europe – without picking up a rifle.


[1] I am indebted to the European Movement in Scotland for this pun.

[2] A hung parliament refers to a situation where no party can form a majority government alone, but instead has to rely on support from other parties in the form of a coalition or another arrangement.

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