Sunday, 3 July 2016

Thousands marched, but what are the options for keeping UK in EU?

It is a time of huge uncertainty for Britain, but there are four scenarios which could see the country remain in the EU.

Yesterday saw an unprecedented, and uncharacteristic, outpouring of love for the European Union on the streets of London.
Tens of thousands of people marched on the British Parliament in a protest hastily organised on Facebook called 'March for Europe'. It was a show of European love not ordinarily seen in the British capital, where EU flags are normally verboten. And it wasn't a vague outpouring of sentiment either. The protesters had a specific demand for the parliament - do not pull the trigger on Brexit. That trigger is known as article 50 (more on that later).

The crowd was overwhelmingly young and educated. As The Guardian's Ed Vulliamy noted, "the hollow, bitter wit of the banners and placards was a fair indication of who took to the streets". “Un-Fuck My Future”, the placards pleaded. “No Brex Please, We’re British”. "Fromage, not Farage". Pictures of Whitney Houston singing “I Will Always Love EU” and Rick Astley singing "Never gonna give EU up, never gonna let EU down". 

“Hell no, we won’t go!” they chanted.

The unprecedented show of EU love caught by surprise Tim Farron - the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the most pro-EU (and in recent years, most unpopular) British political party.
The Leave camp sneered at the protest, calling it a "pathetic tantrum". The implication, of course, being that those gathered in the street were just sore losers. But the Brexiteers are mistaken if they think the battle is over. It is far from certain that the UK is going to actually leave the EU.

The referendum on 23 June was a non-binding, advisory vote from the public. It will take an act of the British Parliament to actually trigger the process of leaving the EU. This is known as Article 50. Before the vote, two-thirds of the Parliament was against leaving the EU. I suspect that proportion has increased since it has become clear after the vote that the Brexiteers have no plan for what comes next. 

Even the leaders of the Leave campaign are now hedging about triggering Article 50, saying the UK could wait months, maybe even years, before the Parliament votes to leave. EU leaders are having none of it. They are demanding that the UK invoke article 50 now. 'Go on then, what are you waiting for?' has been their response. 

Jonathan Shakhovskoy, who organised yesterday's protest, said that if it wasn't big enough to stop the Parliament's Brexit vote "then we'll do it again next week, and the week after." But will the public pressure be enough to sway the politicians? And if so, what are their options?

Here are four possible scenarios I can envision to avoid Brexit:

The UK holds a second referendum in the next months

As I've written before, this is the least likely scenario. The media has given a lot of attention to an official petition, now with more than five million signatures, to re-run the referendum. But while it is clear that the public now knows more about the consequences of Brexit than they knew before the vote, there is little appetite for a new referendum. The first one was traumatic enough. 

It is also politically unpalatable for the government to come back to the people with the exact same question, even though nothing has changed in the mean time. In the past, when the public has been asked again on EU-related referendums in Ireland and Denmark, the government always comes back to the public with a new deal. That renegotiation, sometimes substantial and sometimes theatre, is a necessary in-between step.

Parliament chooses not to ratify the referendum result

As I'e already mentioned, the referendum was a non-binding advisory vote, and the parliament is free to ignore it. All of the Conservative leadership candidates to become the next prime minister have said such a rejection of the public will is unthinkable. But MPs from the Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party will vote against leaving the EU.

That means that it is down to the the main opposition Labour Party to decide what to do. That party is currently in turmoil. Labour MPs staged a vote of no confidence in their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who they say staged a lackluster campaign to remain in the EU and is responsible for the vote outcome. Some have even suggested that the hard-left Corbyn may have secretly voted to leave.

Corbyn is refusing to resign and it is now up to the non-elected party members to decide whether to force him out. The party would then have to choose a new leader. Some of the contenders may campaign on a pledge to lead Labour in a vote against leaving the EU. Could such a person win the leadership? It's hard to say right now.

Such a move would be political suicide for the current crop of MPs. A significant number of working-class Labour voters voted to Leave and could be infuriated by MPs ignoring the result. The public anger could be so intense as to completely disrupt the current party system.

Incidentally even if all Labour MPs voted against leaving, they would still need at least a few pro-remain Conservative MPs to join them in voting against a Brexit. But I suspect that wouldn't be too difficult to arrange, especially for those Tory MPs who are not planning to run for another term (or for those from London areas that voted solidly for remain. I'm looking at you Victoria Borwick).

A snap general election is called with Brexit as the theme

Frankly, it would surprise me if MPs were willing to show the political courage to vote with their conviction rather than follow the referendum advice. They fear the mob. They would probably need a new general election to give them the political cover to overrule the referendum.

If a new general election is called, and is framed as being about Brexit with MPs lining up on either side, and a majority of remain MPs are elected, that would be a democratic mandate to ignore the referendum result. 

Even without the need for rapid clarity on whether Brexit is really happening, it makes sense to call a new referendum anyway. Prime Minister David Cameron has resigned, and the opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is likely to be gone soon also. Everything has changed. The idea that Micahel Gove or Theresa May can waltz in and replace Cameron as prime minister with no public vote seems outrageous, given the circumstances. 

The danger with making a general election about Brexit is that it could lead to a disintegration of the party alignments that have existed in the UK for 80 years. MPs would line up on either side of the ratification issue, but this alignment is likely to split parties. The Tories might be evenly split, and Labour may be split as well (especially if angry Corbynistas decide to rally around Brexit as revenge). 

The Liberal Democrats, the country's most pro-EU party, would remain unified, as would the Greens, UKIP, and the SNP. One could conceivably see an election where the Tory party splits in two, or more moderate Tories defect to the Lib Dems (and perhaps, moderate Labour defects to the Lib Dems as well). We could see new parties formed. The political map would be transformed.

Parliament votes to leave, a new deal with the EU is negotiated, but it is rejected in a new referendum

If the Parliament does go ahead and invoke article 50 in the next months, which seems to be most people's assumption at this point, it triggers a two-year process of renegotiation. 

As I've written before, the preferred solution of the business community is for the UK to join the European Economic Area (EEA). Negotiating that entry would take up the full two years.

But such an arrangement would be absurd. The UK would still have to pay into the EU budget and still have to follow almost all EU rules (including allowing all EU citizens to live and work in the UK). The only thing that would change is that the UK would no longer have a vote in making those rules. 

Joining the EEA would almost certainly require a new referendum. Norway, Iceland and Switzerland all had referendums to ask the public if they wanted to join the EEA, after their publics had already voted to reject joining the EU. Swiss voters actually rejected even joining the EEA in 1992, forcing Bern and Brussels to bypass the public by creating a system of "bilateral accords" that mimic EEA membership (including free movement).

It is not unreasonable to think the British public would, like the Swiss, reject EEA membership in a 2018 referendum. After all, the terms of the agreement would be demonstrably absurd, keeping the UK beholden to EU law but unable to shape it. Two years of negotiations would be down the drain.

That is why such a referendum would probably have to contain three options:

  • Accept EEA membership
  • Remain an EU member state
  • Reject all and send the government back to the drawing board.
Personally I think that in such a situation the public, tired of these years of uncertainty, would vote to rescind the article 50 notification and go back to being an EU members state. 

And voila - it may have taken a few years, but Brexit didn't happen.

Such a referendum would probably also be necessary if the UK negotiates a free trade deal with the EU instead of joining the EEA. But such a negotiation would probably take much longer than two years, at which point the UK would have already left the EU. So that second option would turn into "Re-apply for EU membership".

By this point the other EU members will have grown pretty frustrated with the UK's prevarication. Some member states may wish to veto the UK's attempt to re-join, particularly if Scotland has by that point declared independence and is in the process of joining the EU.

Even if it is EEA membership that the public rejects, the other EU member states could conceivably block the UK coming back in to the fold. As I understand it (and legal scholars feel free to correct me on this), cancelling the Article 50 notification requires the consent of both sides - the UK and the EU. 

If, after two years of negotiations the UK changes its mind and wants to remain, it might be possible for the EU to say 'sorry, too late'. As I've written before, there are certain member states (France) with a strong interest in shackling the UK to an EEA arrangement.

For the purposes of world stability, the first three Bremain scenarios are obviously preferable. But it is the fourth that is the most likely. That still leaves the UK with years of uncertainty while all this is figured out.

Will politicians have the courage to do what is right for the country even if it means going against the (slim) majority will of the people? We shall see.

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