Will Brexit Actually Happen?

It's a bit of a stretch to imagine Britain reversing its decision to leave the European Union.

He wasn't joking.

Photographer: Mary Turner

The Financial Times's Gideon Rachman says he thinks Brexit won't happen. The referendum result doesn't mean that much, he argues.

Any long-term observer of the EU should be familiar with the shock referendum result. In 1992 the Danes voted to reject the Maastricht treaty. The Irish voted to reject both the Nice treaty in 2001 and the Lisbon treaty in 2008.

And what happened in each case? The EU rolled ever onwards. The Danes and the Irish were granted some concessions by their EU partners. They staged a second referendum. And the second time around they voted to accept the treaty. So why, knowing this history, should anyone believe that Britain’s referendum decision is definitive?

He goes on to say, "It is true the British case has some novel elements." I think you call that ironic understatement. Failing to ratify a new treaty is not the same as voting to leave the union. Refusal to ratify is an instruction to the treaty's designers to try again and do better; a vote to quit, following a prolonged renegotiation of Britain's terms, says, "We've had it and that's that."

Almost anything is possible of course. I've already argued that the EU could have avoided Brexit by bending on the issue Rachman also emphasizes -- free movement of labor, the so-called fourth freedom (in addition to free trade in goods, services and capital). I agree with Rachman that this would have been wise. And I acknowledged that new terms followed by a second referendum aren't entirely out of the question even now.

Yet I don't see this happening. Why not, if it both could happen and should happen? Mainly, because the EU will refuse to reward the U.K. for this latest and most frontal assault on European solidarity. Think of the precedent this would set for dealing with anti-EU sentiment elsewhere. And never mind other countries: How long would it be before Britain, for that matter, threatened to leave again, and came back for more?

Weighing these incentives, the EU's leaders are more likely to adjust the fourth freedom in due course so that it affects the EU post-Brexit, but not Britain. Even this, by the way, poses a problem. Treaty revisions involve national ratification votes and more referendums. That's risky. Smaller adjustments to the fourth freedom -- "emergency brakes" and suchlike -- may not require treaty changes, but tweaks of that sort probably wouldn't be enough to quell anti-EU sentiment.

Right now, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's attitude is crucial. She's expressing more patience about coming to exit terms with Britain than most other EU leaders, who seem to want Britain out as quickly as possible. But she also told the Bundestag on Tuesday that there could be no "cherry picking" of the kind Britain wants, that the four internal freedoms were "indivisible," and that the price of access to the single market includes freedom of movement.

This position makes no substantive sense. The indivisibility of the four freedoms is a mere assertion -- a preference, not a requirement of fairness or logic. Nonetheless, it's enshrined as one of the EU's sacred principles, and Merkel just reaffirmed it. I hope she reverses herself and persuades other EU leaders to go along. I think it's unlikely.

Granted, if the EU refuses to budge, other nullification scenarios remain in play. Since the law doesn't rule it out, for instance, parliament might override the referendum.

Conceivably, if that happened, the Leave campaign and its 17 million supporters would then say, "Oh, all right, if you feel that strongly, we'll stay."

Conceivably, the current spasm of paralysis in Westminster will lead to an early general election, with the traditional parties melting down and candidates aligning on Leave and Stay platforms, and the new Stay Party promising another vote with the threshold for Brexit set at 80 percent.

Conceivably, the Stay Party would win the election. That could happen.

Conceivably, Boris Johnson will join the ranks of the tearful voters who say they didn't really mean it, and could they please vote again, while Nigel Farage will explain he was only joking, and tell people to stop taking him so seriously.

Conceivably, Britain will ask itself what it could do to seem even more ridiculous in the eyes of the world, and go sobbing to Brussels to ask for forgiveness.

So, yes, I can imagine Britain reversing itself on Brexit. But it's a bit of a stretch.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Clive Crook at

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