Simon Kuper in The Financial Times
I’m not a natural activist, because I’m too pessimistic, but the other evening I helped gather some stop-Brexit people in a room in London. Much as I love them, they looked like a Daily Mail cartoon of the cosmopolitan elite. Going home on the bus afterwards, I read The Daily Telegraph’s story that the whole event had been funded by international investor George Soros (obviously no offshore plutocrats backed Leave). In fact, though, Stoppers come in several mutually suspicious groups, only one of which is financed by Soros. Most Stoppers are highly self-motivated. One man told me: “I want to be able to tell my children later that at least I tried to block it.”
You’d think Stoppers have no chance. Flawed though the Brexit referendum was, everyone agreed its rules in advance. After Leave’s victory, most Britons almost instantly switched off. Since July 2016, Google searches for Manchester United (or for Chelsea or Arsenal football clubs) have always outnumbered those for Brexit. Yet Stoppers finally feel they can win, perhaps this autumn. I think their best chance will be in 2020.
This autumn, parliament will vote on the government’s “withdrawal agreement” with Europe. MPs won’t vote the bill down. Most think they lack the legitimacy to stop Brexit, since “the people” have spoken. However, MPs might just vote for a second referendum that gives voters final approval over the terms of withdrawal. Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn is a Brexiter, but he knows his party is now overwhelmingly Remain. “Crablike, he’s moving in that direction,” says Andrew Adonis, a chief Stopper and former Labour minister. If Labour and 20 Conservative MPs vote for a referendum, that’s probably enough. The EU would give Britain time to hold one, because it’s committed to letting each state follow its democratic processes before enacting a treaty.
Meanwhile, Stoppers are trying to shift public opinion through mostly youth-led campaigns. Already, polls since last summer show a consistent if slight lead for Remain over Leave. Now Stoppers need to persuade voters they aren’t simply the liberal elite, says Adonis. That means promising radical policies to help left-behinds.
The problem is that a narrow win for Stop in a second referendum would hardly put the Brexit issue to bed. Anyway, the EU probably wouldn’t halt Brexit to readmit a divided UK.
But even if the withdrawal bill passes parliament, the fight continues. The key point is that the bill will be almost content-free. The government cannot say what kind of Brexit it wants, because then it would split. So the bill, after its thrilling front page (“The UK will leave the EU on March 29 2019”), will be just another fudge. It will say something like: “After a two-year transition, we will leave the single market (though possibly not the customs union), having negotiated new arrangements giving us full access to European markets.”
But everyone knows Britain can only have full access by staying in the single market. So the bill will simply delay to 2021 the unanswerable question: what kind of Brexit does Britain want? The issues will be the same as today: a hard Brexit would cause economic pain, and could be vetoed by the Irish Republic. A soft Brexit would anger hard Brexiters.
From March 2019 through 2021, the UK will have officially left the EU, but won’t have chosen its future status. Meanwhile, during the transition, it will remain in the single market and customs union, and keep paying into the EU budget, only without any say in European decisions.
Nobody will like that. So, in 2020, Stoppers can say: “You’ve been negotiating Brexit for four years and got nowhere. Meanwhile, demographic change means the electorate is now clearly Remain. How about a second referendum on whether to jump off the cliff?”
Reversing Brexit in 2020 would be logistically doable given that the UK would never have abandoned European rules. Northern European states — led by Ireland and the Netherlands — would press for Britain’s readmission. The EU would demand guarantees that Britons wouldn’t try Brexit again for a generation. It could then trumpet Brexit’s failure as proof that there’s no life outside the EU.
There’s a third, more painful scenario in which the Stoppers ultimately win. This entails the UK achieving a genuine Brexit. The day Brexit happens, the British political argument changes. For now, all the country’s problems are blamed on Brussels and immigrants. After Brexit, all problems will be blamed on Brexit, even if they have nothing to do with it. The Stoppers — by then Reversers — will ask every day: “Where are the sunny uplands that the Brexiters promised?”
Rejoining the EU should be feasible given that the EU is already reluctantly starting to accept that it’s not a union but several coalitions of states, each moving at different speeds. The divides between countries such as Finland, Hungary and Italy are simply too big to permit unity. A returning UK could rejoin the northern ring of anti-federalist states, stay outside the Schengen passport-free zone and the euro, and finally try tackling its real problems.