Flaggen des Vereinigten Königreichs, Bild: Petr Kratchovil, gemeinfrei

Flags of the United Kingdom, Picture: Petr Kratchovil, public domain

Andreas Marchetti

 

No matter the result of the referendum on British membership in the European Union (EU) on 23 June, a British withdrawal from the EU is unlikely to happen. In case voters decide by a majority to remain in the Union, the United Kingdom’s (UK) membership will certainly continue. But even in case of an opposite vote, a withdrawal is less likely than might seem at first sight.

Which considerations suggest such an assumption? Earlier referendums on Europe have actually shown that the possibility to hold a second vote cannot be excluded. There has even been a certain pattern with regard to the ratification of treaty revisions. However, such referendums are considered to be at least close to bending democracy as voters seem to be demanded to vote on an issue until the result is in line with political elites’ preferences. Considering the polarisation of the past weeks and months a referendum on the same topic would quite surely be equal to political suicide in this case. If one follows analyses such as the recently published paper by the International Monetary Fund on the long-term effects of a brexit (1), negative economic developments will not come as a surprise after a vote to withdraw, though. It is easily imaginable that the majority of public opinion would be reversed under such circumstances, with a British government still being bound by the result of a referendum demanding British withdrawal. The government would be doomed to pursue a process that is democratically legitimised but no longer wished for by a majority.

How could the British government exit such a dilemma without losing its face and in respect of voters’ will at the same time? A closer look into the treaties and the specific arrangements with regard to the withdrawal of a member state suggest a possible way out. Assuming that Britons would vote for the UK’s withdrawal from the Union on 23 June, the provisions of Art. 50 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) will apply. The article foresees the negotiation of an agreement with the member state intending to withdraw. This agreement shall also take into account the framework for the future relationship between the exiting state and the EU. Member states have evidently thought of such arrangements as with Switzerland or with Norway in order to facilitate an orderly withdrawal. In case no agreement is reached, the – non-orderly – withdrawal of the member state will nonetheless take place two years after the notification that it intends to leave the EU.

Bearing in mind the treaty provisions, the British government should indeed pursue sincere negotiations on a withdrawal agreement with the EU according to Art. 50 TEU within the two-year time frame. It could then hold a new referendum on the agreement – and not again on the general question of remaining in or withdrawing from the Union (2). By doing so, the government could either receive a final placet for the now concretised procedures of withdrawal or just call off the British withdrawal from the Union without the loss of face. The possibilities of the United Kingdom to shape the EU would, however, be ever more reduced, as in the meantime it would only be able to act as a lame duck on any Union issue.

 

1) See International Monetary Fund: United Kingdom: Selected Issues (IMF Country Reports, 16/169), Washington, D.C. 2016.

2) Along similar lines runs the argument of Gavin Barrett: What the UK could learn from Ireland’s EU referendum campaigns, London 2016, without specifying the conditions for such a „confirmatory referendum“.

 

Allemand Anglais