A majority of British people voted in favor of a withdrawal from the European Union but since Thursday’s vote some suggestions have emerged for how to prevent a Brexit.
Possible obstacles, from a Scottish veto to a petition with 3 million signatories calling for a second referendum, may offer new options after the referendum in which voters narrowly opted to leave.
For example, the figurehead of the Leave campaign, former London mayor Boris Johnson, is not someone to tie himself down and in the past he has regularly changed his mind on the European question. He has gone on the record saying things like “We can’t leave Europe.” But he has also said: “I want a better deal for the people of this country to save them money and to take back control.” That was from the speech in February which announced his conversion to the Brexit cause.
Mr. Johnson has also given mixed signals on the issue of a second referendum, specifically, whether British people would get a chance to vote on any new deal worked out with Brussels. First he said any original referendum vote would be final and binding. But then he wiggled a bit: the referendum should close the issue, he said, but maybe not forever.
“It is important to emphasize that there is no need for haste.”
This man who is not afraid to change his mind is in a powerful position. Over the next few months, he could well achieve his deeply held ambition to become prime minister. If he does, there is a chance that Brexit will not happen.
Another politician, Scotland’s First Minister, could also lead to an exit from a Brexit. Nicola Sturgeon has said she would do everything possible to keep Scotland in the E.U. after the majority of Scottish voters chose to remain in the European Union with 62 percent in favor of remain against 38 percent wanting to leave.
On Sunday, Ms. Sturgeon, speaking on the BBC, indicated that if asked to approve legislative steps to leave the union, she would call on Scottish members of the parliament to veto plans to quit the European Union. Ms. Sturgeon noted that it was unclear what the outcome would be if the decision from Westminster differed to the views of Scottish politicians.
Experts are discussing further exit possibilities. “Even after the referendum, there doesn’t necessarily have to be a full-scale Brexit,” said Henrik Enderlein, director of the Jacques Delors Institute, a pro-European Berlin-based think tank. The withdrawal process would be long and difficult, he said, involving talks over at least two years. “The U.K. has a lot to lose. It is not impossible that a second referendum could lead to Britain withdrawing its withdrawal application. Realpolitik is tough. And that’s a good thing,” he added.
Some on the defeated side – the 48 percent who voted “Remain” – are already pushing for a second referendum. Within hours of the results being announced, an online petition for a second vote had received over 100,000 signatures, the threshold which forces a parliamentary debate on the question. By Monday, 3 million people had signed it. The petition takes procedural questions as its starting point in opposing the result: it points out that neither side achieved 60 percent of the votes, and that overall turnout was below 75 percent.
The British media were quick to report on disillusioned “Leave” voters, who were already regretting their choice on social media. They voted against the E.U., they said, but never imagined a majority would agree with them.
Some in London are discussing another possible path to a second referendum. “The new prime minister might call a new referendum, depending on how bad the economic consequences of the vote turn out to be and if the country really is plunged into a new recession,” said one London banker. Beforehand, a new deal would have to be worked out with Brussels, granting larger concessions to Britain to drain away support from Brexit supporters, thus winning a majority to remain in the European Union. Experienced observers of E.U. politics were very skeptical as to whether Brussels would go along with this. But it remains a possibility, however distant.
British politicians and observers have also raised the possibility of a general election, which would give a new Prime Minister the mandate to govern.
Other possibilities for a Brexit exit include a refusal by the UK parliament to implement the decision to leave. As British politician David Lammy, of the Labour party, pointed out, the referendum is non-binding and advisory. “Stop this madness,” Mr. Lammy, a former minister for education and skills, tweeted, adding: “Wake up. We do not have to do this.” He called on MPs to reject the referendum, saying there should be a vote in Parliament next week. “Let us not destroy our economy on the basis of lies and the hubris of Boris Johnson,” he added.
“Depending on how bad the economic consequences of the vote turn out to be, the new prime minister might call a second referendum.”
Mr. Johnson himself, in his first post-Brexit appearance, looked shell shocked, rather than jubilant. He said: “It is important to emphasize that there is no need for haste.” He added that nothing would change in the short term, except a search for ways to fulfill the mandate of the people and to free the country from the European Union. But then came a sentence which some read as Mr. Johnson leaving a back door open. There was no necessity, said the former mayor of London, to formally begin the withdrawal via Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.
In the past, Mr. Johnson he has never hesitated to simply change his mind, without explanation or justification.
At the weekend, writing his regular column for the Sunday Telegraph, which sided with the Leave campaign, Mr. Johnson sought to reassure those who had voted to remain in the E.U. and said that Britain remains a part of Europe and always will do. He said those who had voted to leave had a small majority and he sought to reassure remainers, and the markets, and called for unity.
But Mr. Johnson has a few hurdles to overcome before he can achieve his long-cherished ambition of becoming prime minister. He has to somehow unite the Conservative party behind him, a party which for decades has torn itself apart on the question of Europe. He also has to turn himself from a “court jester,” as former prime minister John Major recently called him, into a statesman.
Mr. Major called him a court jester partly because of Mr. Johnson rather questionable campaign tactics. In television debates and in public appearances, the blond-haired Mr. Johnson had no problems playing fast and loose with the truth.
He claimed, for example, that the European Union’s crazy standardization policies forced Britain to accept smaller condoms, straighter bananas and uniform-size coffins, that they meant tea bags could no longer be recycled and banned children under eight from blowing up balloons. He left it to academics and journalists to test these Brexit debate claims for truth: it took quite a bit of work to burst his rhetorical bubbles and prove they were untrue.
Presented with the truth, Mr. Johnson defended himself, saying that people should not take everything that he says completely seriously.
Katharina Slodczyk is Handelsblatt’s London correspondent. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org