You may have heard that Britain, a small country in the north-west of Europe, recently voted to leave the European Union (EU), by a narrow margin of 51.9 to 48.1 percent.
The result mostly crept up on the political, media and corporate establishments (not to mention the bookies), who had thought that Britons would cleave to the perceived safety of the status quo, even as polls in the week prior to the vote signalled otherwise.
Since the outcome was revealed on June 23rd many have predicted that it could be undone by legal or political shenanigans. The lawyer David Allen Green has even claimed that Article 50, the legal mechanism for Britain quitting the EU, might never be invoked.
All of which leaves an obvious question: After the referendum result, is Britain actually going to trigger Article 50 and leave the EU? And will it do it by 2020, the year the next general election is scheduled for?
The Outside View
The EU has a certain infamy as the sort of polity that keeps calling referendums until it gets the results it wants. Taking the outside view, it seems as though looking at when the Eurocrats defy the wishes of the polled would be a reasonable starting point for a forecast on whether Britons can expected to be similarly outfoxed.
Wikipedia has a lengthy list of referendums relating to the EU and its predecessor organisations.
What becomes clear when reading it is that while all votes in favour of European integration are honoured by the national and international bodies, rejection of integration in any referendum is quickly followed by a period of renegotiation and implementation, sometimes with a follow-up referendum, sometimes not.
For leave voters this is discouraging. All plebiscite rejections of integration into the EU have been followed by acceptance of some integration, albeit less than was initially offered to voters.
Even Greenland, which nationally rejected membership of the European Community in the 1972 Danish referendum – Greenland being a Danish overseas territory – and again in 1982 after home rule was granted, still retains links to the EU.
More recently Greece voted by 61.3 percent to reject a bailout deal from the European Commission and its partners, shortly before its government accepted a similar deal anyway.
But to head another way with this: What about the British history of referendums?
Since 1973 Britain has had some 23 referendums at city, regional or national level (excluding the most recent on the EU), with almost half concerning the election of city mayors in 2012.
The success of the British government in pushing its agenda in these polls has been mixed. Most of the mayors were rejected against the desire of the coalition government for greater devolution (Doncaster and Bristol were exceptions), but New Labour was able to push its devolution agenda in Wales and Scotland, and its peace agreement in Northern Ireland.
What is notable is that the government accepted the decision in all instances, whether or not it went against its own agenda. Much of the time this was easy, since the majority of the results went in favour of the status quo (17/23), and the remainder in which change was voted for had government support.
We thus have an apparent contradiction: European governments have always reduced any rebellions, but British governments have always respected referendum results. To put it another way: 100 percent of referendums against the EU have ended in some European integration, and 100 percent of British governments that called plebiscites have honoured the result.
However, if we look behind the ostensible contradiction we come to another possibility: Britons will exit the EU, but the fully detached relationship implied by the binary vote will be softened by subsequent negotiations. Such an approach would agree with the respective records of the EU and Britain for dealing with referendums.
Based on the above facts, the long view would give a certain (100 percent) forecast of Britain resigning its EU membership.
The Inside View
The actual mechanics of a divorce between Britain and the rump EU quickly become complicated.
Following the referendum result prime minister and Tory leader David Cameron resigned from both posts, and has recently been succeeded by Theresa May.
May’s government now has the option – and it is just that, because the referendum was advisory – of triggering Article 50, the aforementioned mechanism for allowing Britain to begin exit negotiations with the rest of the EU.
At this point there are several uncertainties around this process:
- Does May intend to trigger the article?
- Can the article be triggered at the prime minister’s discretion, or must a vote take place in the House of Commons?
- If a Commons vote is necessary, can the prime minister gather enough support in favour of triggering the article?
To take the first question: May has repeatedly said that “Brexit means Brexit”.
On launching her campaign to become Tory leader, May said: “I want to use this opportunity to make several things clear. First, Brexit means Brexit […] the public gave their verdict. There must be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it through the backdoor, and no second referendum.”
She has since also said she wants to develop a “UK approach” prior to beginning negotiations. But she has pledged broadly to triggering Article 50 at some point.
On the second question, the legalities of Article 50 remain in dispute. One court case of many has indicated that the matter may well have to be resolved in the British supreme court, and involve much constitutional head-scratching.
There is at least some chance that Article 50 will have to be put before the Commons as a result, or that May may choose to put it before the Commons rather than leave the matter to be tested in court (thus defending the prime minister’s discretionary “royal prerogative” powers from clear definition).
If the matter is put before the Commons it then runs the risk of being voted down. According to the Mirror, some 186 Tory MPs backed remain, compared to 135 leavers; almost all Labour MPs backed remain.
It is probable May will successfully whip the vote (obliging her MPs to side with the government) in this matter, and with a slim majority in the Commons it could be passed without trouble.
Labour, with its eurosceptic leader Jeremy Corbyn, may run a free vote. Although most MPs voted remain it seems unlikely they would seek to subvert Brexit. Hillary Benn, a prominent Labour backbencher, is among those who have accepted the outcome.
While some will argue to delay the triggering of Article 50, on balance it seems likely (about 95 percent) the vote would go through, giving May authority to begin negotiations.
Starting with our long view forecast that Article 50 will be triggered in this parliament, it seems there are enough uncertainties in the short view to knock off a few percent from the final prediction.
Britain’s long history of respecting referendum results, added to the current make-up of the government and the statements made by opposition politicians make it highly likely that the country is in fact leaving the EU.
However, it is not impossible that protracted preparations and legal complications could delay the triggering, and weaken the mandate of the government for leaving the EU. Given enough lag, and the uncertainty of further general elections, there is a small chance Brexit may not happen.
Final forecast: Britain has a 95 percent chance of triggering Article 50 before 2020.
Image Credit – Houses of Parliament, June 2011 by Leonard Bentley