Brexit: Can They Change Their Minds?

The results of the referendum are, in theory, not legally binding.

Demonstrators in London protest Saturday against Britain's exit from the European Union. (Tim Ireland / AP)

Lest we think the Euroskepticism displayed this week by British voters is new, let me present a scene from the BBC’s Yes, Minister, a comedy about the U.K. civil service’s relationship with a minister. The series ran from 1980 to ’84 (and, yes, it was funny), at a time when the European Union was a mere glint in its founders’ eyes.

The Europe being referred to in the scene is the European Economic Community (EEC), an eventually 12-member bloc established in the mid-1950s, to bring about greater economic integration among its members.

In many ways, the seeds of the U.K.’s Thursday referendum on its membership in the European Union were sown soon after the country joined the now-defunct EEC in 1973. Then, as now, the ruling Conservative Party and opposition Labour, along with the rest of the country, were deeply divided over the issue. In the run-up to the general election the following year, Labour promised in its manifesto to put the U.K.’s EEC membership to a public referendum. Labour eventually came to power and Parliament passed the Referendum Act in 1975, fulfilling that campaign promise. The vote was held on June 5, 1975, and the result was what the political establishment had hoped for: an overwhelming 67 percent of voters supported the country’s EEC membership.

Fast-forward to January 23, 2013, and what has become known as Prime Minister David Cameron’s “Bloomberg speech,” delivered at the company’s European headquarters. In it, Cameron cited public disillusionment with the EU, the successor to the EEC. He said the 28-member bloc was headed in a direction Britons had not signed up to. Indeed, in the preceding four decades, all of Europe came to be treated as a single market (with the Single European Act of 1986), allowing the free movement of labor and goods across the bloc; the bloc moved toward a single economic and monetary union (with the Maastricht Treaty of 1992) that would result in the euro (which the U.K. opted out of); and more powers were given to the European Parliament (with the Treaty of Lisbon of 2007).

For those who believed the EU had become too large, too powerful, and too distant, this was a nightmare come true. As Cameron put it in his Bloomberg speech: “They resent the interference in our national life by what they see as unnecessary rules and regulation. And they wonder what the point of it all is. Put simply, many ask, ‘Why can’t we just have what we voted to join—a common market?’”

Cameron said a vote on the U.K.’s membership in the EU was inevitable. It was better, he said, to hold it sooner rather than later to ensure a “remain” vote. In 2015, after much public debate over the issue, Parliament passed the European Union Referendum Act to make such a public vote possible, and in February of this year, Cameron announced the referendum would be held on June 23. And, by now, we all know how that ended, and the hand-wringing and warnings of doom that followed. But there is, in theory, an out: The 2015 Act did not make a provision for the referendum’s result to be legally binding. The law did not spell out the next steps in the event of a “leave” victory. That job, in the U.K., falls to Parliament because the country, like some other parliamentary democracies, views the legislature as sovereign.

So, what’s next? The Treaty of Lisbon for the first time set in place a mechanism for an EU member to leave the bloc—the by now well-known Article 50. But the referendum’s results were not an automatic trigger for its invocation. Parliament must invoke Article 50 in order for Britain’s negotiations on how it will extricate itself from the EU can begin.

A joint statement by the EU’s top officials, no doubt miffed that the U.K. had voted to withdraw despite multiple appeals from the European public and incentives to stay from European leaders, was clear: “We now expect the United Kingdom government to give effect to this decision of the British people as soon as possible, however painful that process may be. Any delay would unnecessarily prolong uncertainty. We have rules to deal with this in an orderly way.”

But in a speech Friday, in which Cameron announced he was stepping down in October, the British prime minister made clear that the next steps would be deliberate—and at the same time offered some wiggle room for his successor.

“A negotiation with the European Union will need to begin under a new Prime Minister,” he said, “and I think it’s right that this new Prime Minister takes the decision about when to trigger Article 50 and start the former and legal process of leaving the EU.”

Could the current or future British prime minister put that decision on hold? They certainly have the legal right to do so. It is, however, highly unlikely that (s)he or Parliament, where Cameron’s Conservatives hold a majority, will ignore the wishes of 52 percent of its people (despite a petition signed by more than 2 million Britons that asks them to do just that)—even if it means alienating some of the U.K.’s allies in Europe. After all, in the words of Yes, Minister’s Sir Humphrey Appleby, “Diplomacy is about surviving until the next century—politics is about surviving until Friday afternoon.”