WASHINGTON – Looking at the reactions of sadness and disbelief in Britain to the results of the Brexit vote, I am beginning to feel that the end of this England/EU tragedy (farce?) has not been written, yet. (On this, see also Gideon Rachman’s reflections in The Financial Times). By that I mean that a new London-Brussels compromise may be negotiated and struck that will allow Britain to stay in the EU, albeit with a few new qualifications regarding its membership.
What have we done?
I say this because the British are clearly not that happy about the outcome of their vote. Based on the widespread consternation now pervading the UK, (“My God! What have we done?“), my hunch is that many among those who voted Leave had no idea about they were doing, and of the dire consequences of a vote that would take Britain out of the EU.
Even worse, many truly believed all the lies told by the Leave leaders regarding all the British money earmarked for Brussels that from now on would stay in Great Britain, and about how wonderful everything would be, once the UK regained its “independence” from Brussels. Most of that talk was just brazen, totally irresponsible propaganda.
Well, what do you know, in the aftermath of this clear victory, the language of the Leave leaders all of a sudden has become very nuanced, almost timid. “Well, there will be some financial gains, but not too many.” “Yes, we shall regain control over immigration, but not total.”
In other words, no atmosphere of triumph. In fact it looks like: “And now, what do we do? Getting out of the EU looks a lot more complicated than we thought” .
Looking at all this, many voters are getting the feeling that by voting for Brexit they bought a dream of a “new independence” that would make everybody rich that has no basis in reality.
No more Great Britain?
Besides, the Leave front probably did not consider adequately the domestic political repercussions of the referendum outcome. With England in favor of leaving, while Scotland and Northern Ireland are strongly in favor of remaining, we have the elements of a major national dispute that may very well lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom. The possible end of Great Britain seems to be too much of a price to pay in the context of a vote that was supposed to assert British independence from Brussels.
Not a super majority
And, last but not least, while the 52% to 48% vote in favor is Brexit is clear, it is far from overwhelming. In other words, almost half the people in the UK voted to stay in the EU. And if you look at the actual number of votes cast, (only 72% of all voters participated in the referendum), in the end only 36% of the British citizens went for Brexit. A strong plurality, to be sure; but not a convincing majority.
Can this be undone?
Well, given all that, can something be done to reverse the outcome of this referendum? Something is indeed possible. It is not inconceivable that we can see in the coming weeks and months a fresh round of negotiations between London and Brussels aimed at reaching a new compromise that may satisfy a majority of British voters.
If we can assume a new arrangement whereby the UK gets a few more concessions from Brussels, especially on the number of EU immigrants it is willing to accept, it is entirely possible to have another referendum justified by the fact that the situation has changed, because now there is a new, more “favorable” UK-EU deal on the table.
If the victory for the Leave camp had been much more decisive, with a larger voter turnout, any idea of starting new negotiations leading to a new compromise and a new vote would be totally implausible. But the fact is that only 36% of the voters affirmed their wish to leave the EU. And it seems that now many of them regret that vote.
Can there be a face-saving compromise? Imagine a new, more favorable (for the UK) deal followed by another referendum. Great Britain decides to stay in the EU on the basis of a new arrangement with Brussels. The Brexit camp can still claim victory because better terms were obtained on account of their successful agitation. This second act may not be easy. But it is entirely possible.
I still believe that the EU is mostly a turbocharged Chamber of Commerce with vain glorious and ill-defined political unification aspirations. And I still believe that this vote in the UK highlights the lack of genuine buy-in in the “Idea of Europe” on the part of large segments of European public opinion. But tearing the whole thing down without any plan whatsoever for a post-EU Great Britain is not the best way to move forward.
The EU is not the source of all problems
Here is the thing. The UK and other EU members have deep problems. But most of them do not stem from Brussels. They are rooted in large and frankly non affordable social programs, lack of labor mobility, low levels of investments and productivity, and declining fertility rates.
The notion sold to a majority of the British public before this referendum that the country’s difficulties originate from its EU membership is false and totally misleading. True enough, Brussels does not help much. But, no, it is not the source of the widespread economic suffering affecting the UK and the rest of Europe. Therefore, getting out of Europe is no cure.