Brexit Redo Is an Idea Whose Time Hasn't Come

(Bloomberg View) -- The idea of rerunning the U.K.'s historic 52-to-48 percent 2016 vote to leave the European Union is understandably tempting for those in the 48-percent camp. Consider what's happened since: nail-biting negotiations with the EU, polls that show growing Brexit remorse, evidence that the U.K. economy is suffering from the uncertainty the vote has brought.

The main U.K. political parties have both rejected the idea (though Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell refused to rule it out in an interview with Bloomberg TV this week). But that hasn't stopped its advocates at home or even in Europe. Of four recent e-petitions for a new vote, the largest gained 130,000 signatures since September. Manfred Weber, an ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and leader of the largest group in the European parliament, spoke on Wednesday of growing U.K. support for a second referendum. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, among others, has called for a second referendum on several occasions.

This week, Welsh Labour Party MP Geraint Davies published a bill that would give voters a choice of whether to accept the final deal that the EU and U.K. reach. Parliament gave itself a similar choice Wednesday night in a vote that will force the government to submit the final Brexit agreement to its scrutiny before leaving the union, but that may not satisfy remainers bent on a second referendum. 

However appealing that course may appear to be, on close inspection the arguments for it are unpersuasive.

One weak argument is that voters were lied to by the leave campaign. It's true that there were absurd and misleading claims during the campaign, for example suggesting Britain would reap an immediate financial windfall when it ceased paying membership fees to the EU. Leave voters weren't told that the U.K. would be leaving the single market either. But if democracies reran votes on the basis of specious claims in political advertising, nothing would ever get settled.

A stronger argument is based on the fact that voters in the Brexit referendum were comparing a known quantity (EU membership) with an unknown one (life on the outside). They had no way to measure the effect of a divorce. By that logic, Britons should get a chance to vote again once trade relationships are set between the U.K. government and EU negotiators and citizens could reasonably judge the result.

Davies, the Welsh MP calling for a second referendum, says the question that should be put to voters is this:

Do you support the government's proposed United Kingdom and Gibraltar exit package for withdrawal from the European Union or should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?

Voters could answer either "support the government's proposed exit package" or "remain a member of the European Union."

That sounds straightforward, but it isn't. One problem is timing. The U.K. legally leaves the EU on March 29, 2019. Many experts (though not all) say that Article 50, the EU treaty measure by which Britain gave notice of its intention to leave, can be legally reversed before the withdrawal is final. So if the U.K. were to back out of Brexit via a second referendum, that vote would need to take place before March 2019.

Parliamentary democracies are plodding beasts; meeting that deadline would be some feat. Referendums require legislation and up to a year of lead time to prepare. That means that in the next few months, parliament would have to agree on a referendum, the question, the format and other details.

That's implausible. The Labour Party, which represents many pro-Brexit constituencies, is officially against a second referendum (though it wants to retain close EU ties). The Conservative government, which is negotiating the exit, is obviously opposed. It's hard to imagine the circumstances under which a second referendum would have sufficient parliamentary support in the foreseeable future.

Once 2019 rolls around, reversing Brexit becomes even trickier. After the U.K. has left the EU, it would have to make a new application to rejoin; cue another long negotiation. Voters would in that case be in the same position they were in before the first referendum: They would be asked their view on rejoining the EU without knowing the terms.

Even straining to imagine the political climate that could enable such a vote, the chances of Britain re-entering the EU on the same terms it left the bloc are vanishingly small. It's unlikely, for example, that the EU would approve the controversial budget rebate that Margaret Thatcher negotiated in the 1980s. Instead, it might ask for some bigger sign of commitment such as abandoning the pound for the euro.

But (suspending disbelief entirely now) even if the U.K. parliament could agree on a referendum before the Article 50 clock runs out, it seems reckless to do so. At a time when public confidence in politicians is weak, how does it encourage faith in democracy for a government to call a vote that is meant to be definitive and then replay it? More importantly, having seen the toll that uncertainty has already brought on the U.K. economy, it would be folly to drag out the uncertainty with a new campaign and vote. And at a time when other important issues — from housing shortages to inequality and a severely strained national health care service — are starved of the oxygen of government attention, it would be a profligate use of government energies.

Perhaps one day — possibly decades into the future — there will be a strong enough case for revisiting the June 2016 decision. That isn't now. Those who want a close relationship with Europe should instead think about how to influence the trade negotiations that are about to begin.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg View. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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