Can Britain exit the Brexit?

British Prime Minister David Cameron holding a news conference at the European Summit in Brussels on June 28. PHOTO: EPA

WASHINGTON • The British referendum result has created such severe turmoil that public attention is increasingly focused on an extreme option: Can they get out of it?

British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Monday that he considered the referendum binding but that he would leave it to his successor to implement the decision after his expected resignation in October.

This opens a window of at least four months during which time Britain could decide not to proceed.

If the next prime minister does trigger the departure process, Britain then has two years to negotiate the terms of its leaving. It could theoretically use that time to negotiate an alternative plan.


The referendum is not legally binding. The process of leaving does not begin until the prime minister officially invokes Article 50 of the European Union's governing treaty. So he or she could, in theory, carry on as if the vote had never happened.

Mr Cameron has refused to invoke Article 50 himself. Of his two most likely successors in the Conservative Party, Ms Theresa May opposes leaving the union and Mr Boris Johnson, a prime Brexit proponent, is already backpedalling, pledging on Monday that changes "will not come in any great rush".

Most Parliament members opposed leaving the union, and might support a leader who refuses to invoke Article 50. But that would be akin to overruling the will of 17.4 million Britons who voted to leave, an extreme step in a country that prides itself on democratic values.

It would also risk inflaming the underlying forces that led to the Leave victory: rising populist anger, distrust of seemingly unaccountable government institutions and a belief that the system is rigged.


The House of Lords said in an April report that any decision to exit the EU would have to be approved by the parliaments of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

Welsh voters supported Brexit and Northern Ireland's Parliament is led by a party that favours leaving the union. But Scottish voters overwhelmingly opposed leaving, and the governing Scottish National Party has pledged to take any available measures to remain in the bloc.

Ms Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, has suggested that her Parliament could withhold consent, sparking a constitutional crisis. That, in turn, could be an opportunity to avoid a Brexit.

The next prime minister could tell voters that he or she would like to carry out their will, but that leaving Europe is impossible without Scottish approval. This offers a hint more political legitimacy than simply disregarding the referendum.


In 1992, Danish voters narrowly rejected a referendum on joining one of the treaties that laid the EU's foundations. Eleven months later, after a flurry of diplomacy, voters approved it in a second referendum.

Similar scenarios unfolded in 2001 and 2008 when Irish voters rejected EU treaties before embracing them in second referendums in subsequent years.

Could British voters reverse themselves as well? As of yesterday, an online petition calling for a do-over had about four million signatures.

But a survey by ComRes last Saturday found that only 1 per cent of Leave voters were unhappy with the results.

British leaders could justify a second cut at the question by securing special concessions from the EU, like allowing Britain to put a cap on immigration. This was how Danish and Irish leaders persuaded their voters to approve the referendums.

European leaders, however, may not be eager to go along. If any member state can extract special concessions by threatening to leave, it undermines the union's ability to make Europe-wide policies.


Article 50 gives an exiting country two years to negotiate terms for its relationship with the union, on issues such as trade and migration.

What if Britain struck a series of deals that largely preserved the status quo, only without formal EU membership?

This seems to be something Mr Johnson is pondering. In an op-ed in The Telegraph on Sunday, he promised that Britain would maintain free trade and free movement deals with Europe.

One model is Norway, which is not an EU member but subscribes to its common market and open borders. But if Britain chose this path, it "would have no vote and no presence when crucial decisions that affect the daily lives of its citizens are made", former Norwegian foreign minister Espen Barth Eide warned last year.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2016, with the headline Can Britain exit the Brexit?. Subscribe