Cancelling Brexit – what would happen if we changed our mind about leaving the EU?

French President Emmanuel Macron, recently declared, at joint press conference with Theresa May, that until “negotiations come to an end, there is always a chance to reopen the door”. Britain, in other words, could still choose to stay in the European Union.

His words confirmed what most people in the UK – on both sides of the Brexit divide – seem to think: our partners want us to remain; and that it would be better for them if we did. Indeed, some have gone so far as to argue that reversing Brexit is necessary in order to save the European Union. I am not convinced. A Britain that, having voted to leave, then decided to stay would be the worst thing to have happened to the EU.

Imagine, hypothetically, the following scenario. The Prime Minister comes to realise that a negotiated Brexit will involve a huge bill and continued jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice over key sectors of the British economy, not to mention on going payments into the EU budget. The alternative, a disorderly Brexit, will cause chaos and significantly damage the British economy. Confronted with this choice, and putting the nation before party or personal interest, she decides that, all things being equal, attempting to remain in the EU is her only viable option.

Far more significantly, it is worth considering what kind of Britain would rejoin its partners around the EU table. This would be a Britain that had voted to leave, and would be remaining on terms worse than those it had rejected in June (Cameron’s renegotiation was null and void from the moment the result was announced). Despite the odd poll suggesting “Bregret”, most surveys show tha the majority of British people still want to see the country reclaim “sovereignty”, its money, and its “control over its borders”.

How, then, would such a Britain interact with its partners? For one thing, it is hard to see how a British government could ever again approve an EU budget that was acceptable to other member states. Whatever the British people do or don’t know about the budget, they all are aware that the UK pays a significant amount of money into it. Could a Conservative government really append its signature to a document perpetuating this “waste”? And next year, the EU will begin the always-fraught process of negotiating its next multi-year budget.

The EU27’s obstructionism would not be limited to the budget. In the months since the referendum, the other member states have made it clear that they see defence co-operation as an area where they can make significant progress. That assumption was squarely based on the absence of the UK. Were we to remain inside, what defence secretary Michael Fallon has referred to as a British “veto”, would indeed become one, as opposed to merely a rather ill-advised, and ultimately pointless, delaying tactic. The first victim would be the EU Operational Headquarters, which Britain has been vetoing for years.

Then there is the democratic life of the EU to consider. Who do you think would do best out of a decision to ignore the referendum result in the elections to the European Parliament of 2019? With or without a competent leader, Ukip would no doubt build on its success in 2014 (the first time in modern history that neither Labour nor the Conservatives won a national election). Would the EU thank us for an even greater supply of MEPs committed to its destruction?

And following a Ukip success, history, whilst probably not repeating itself would, in the words of Mark Twain, begin to rhyme. How long before the threat of defections began to weigh on the Prime Minister? How long before the Ukip threat led to a still harsher line on Europe? How long before her (or his) own MPs attempted to twist her arm to promise anther popular vote to lay to rest once and for all the notion of buyers’ regret?

In this they would, of course, have a willing ally in many sections of the media. In the right-wing red tops, a European Union that was already seen as undemocratic would now be cast as quasi-totalitarian for having defied the “democratic will” of the British people. Every law, every ECJ judgment, every pronouncement from any EU figure would be met with a scorn that would make the pre-referendum bile seem positively charming.

Faced with such a backdrop, it is hard to see how the British government could engage positively on any issue with its European partners. Could ministers ever again support EU legislation, however well thought out or necessary it might be? Could a Prime Minister ever attend a European Council except to hector and sneer? How long would it be until the British government took a decision to refuse to comply with a piece of legislation, thereby triggering the most serious crisis in the history of European integration?

Ultimately, what happens will, as ever, boil down to procedure. British Europhiles would do well to reflect carefully on what a British U-turn might mean for an institution they profess to support. Meanwhile, if we at any stage do ask our partners to stop the process, should we really expect them to welcome us back with open arms? Would they not be better advised to assume they’d be better off without us?

By Anand Menon, director of UK in a Changing Europe and professor of European politics and foreign affairs, King’s College London. This piece originally featured in the New Statesman

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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  • Mette-Simone Dichmann

    Many thanks for this piece, which certainly has moved my thinking in this matter. Remain would be horrible for the UK27 and possibly cause further deterioration to EU over time than Brexit.

    There will be no good Brexit, but maybe going for the Norway model will cause the least harm.

    Still boggles my mind that the UK is now voluntarily pursuing a situation where only measures of damage limitation can be considered realistic instruments. There should be a Hippocratic oath for politicians too: First, do no harm.

  • jgs0207

    Quite right, Anand, you hit the nail on the head.

    There may be a rethink but a reversal will not be allowed!

    Once Art. 50 is set in motion it’s game over, there is no way back! The application for leaving the Union cannot be revoked. After 2 years of tortuous, acrimonious negotiations they will have antagonized the rest of Europe to an extent that the United Kingdom is not welcome in the family of European nations anymore! Under no circumstances will the peoples of Europe allow the British to change their mind and say they did not mean it and, please, allow us to come back! No way.

    The EU will be so much more agile, flexible, dynamic and successful once it has shed the choking yoke of the island kingdom. Europe will get deep and beneficial trade links with other parts of the world and its financial institutions will be dealing more efficiently and much more honestly with the public again. Whatever the outcome will be, the UK will be materially in a worse position than they are now, probably much worse. If that is alright with the Brits, it’s definitely alright with us.

  • Andy Forbes

    Your argument assumes throughout that attitudes to the EU will remain more or less as they are now. In fact there is growing evidence that many of the British electorate, when faced for the first time with the facts of the EU and the reality of the network of economic and social relationships we have with it, will begin to modify their views. I can remember a time when smoking was defended as an individual human right, when gay relationships were considered aberrant and when most people believed corporal punishment was good for children. Once evidence-based arguments have been properly presented, beliefs based on prejudice tend to fade away rapidly. I predict that within two years, once the economic damage of Brexit is clearly evident,public opinion will have swung decisively in favour of a Norway-style relationship with the EU or even retaining full membership. A Britain fully committed to the EU rather then a reluctant bride will be welcomed back with open arms.

  • Christoph Meyer

    An insightful piece pointing out a credible scenario of Britain becoming an even more “awkward partner” partner if Parliament revoked article 50 (which it is perfectly entitled to do regardless of the wishes of the EU-27). It is, however, premised on the revocation being just based on parliament decision whilst public opinion stays largely at it is now. I would suggest that parliament would be unlikely to support the cancellation without a clear shift in public opinion towards remaining, or indeed, a referendum on the negotiated terms of Brexit obtained vs staying in. Contrary to current promises not to hold a second referendum, politicians will want to shift the responsibility for such a decision to the electorate. Depending on the outcome of such a referendum, I do see the possibility that this issue will have been laid to rest for good as a) the public attitude towards tackling it once again any time soon will most likely have vanished alongside with UKIP, b) it is unlikely to rise again for the foreseeable future given the demographics behind the Brexit referendum, i.e. the growing proportion of the young and EU citizens gaining dual nationality.

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