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How the Brexit could still be stopped

One option is to delay and hope that pro-Brexiters either come to their senses or forget about the whole thing.
Un aereo della British Royal Air Force a Gibilterra. [Foto di Jon Nazca/Reuters]

Not long after the referendum results had made it clear that Britain had voted to leave the European Union, the whole situation started feeling like the hungover aftermath of a Las Vegas wedding. The pound was plummeting to lows not seen since the 1980s, the prime minister had announced his resignation, Nigel Farage had already reneged on one of the major "Leave" campaign promises, and Scotland was preparing to pack its bags.


Two soundbites from "Leave" voters who regretted their decision the following day were shared and quoted liberally. "Regrexit' grew from the ashes of "Remain" and started trending on Twitter.

The UK government is not bound to observe the results of the referendum, and the UK will not move forward with withdrawal until parliament votes to take that action.

So on Tuesday, at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado, US Secretary of State John Kerry floated the possibility that Brexit could even be "walked back" and that there were "a number of ways" that the Brits could do a U-turn.

"This is a very complicated divorce," Kerry said, adding that he believes the people who advocated for Brexit don't have a plan, or don't really want to leave the EU.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel says Britain got themselves into this mess, and now they have to deal with it.

Related: UK police say racist incidents have spiked since the Brexit vote

"I want to say very clearly tonight that I see no way to reverse this," Merkel said on Tuesday night when asked about the possibility of the Brits backing out of Brexit. "We all need to look at the reality of the situation. It is not the hour for wishful thinking."

Professor Jo Shaw, Salvesen Chair of European Institutions and Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at University of Edinburgh Law School, said that it's important to remember that Merkel and Kerry are both representing their country's domestic interests.


French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault warned last week: "We have to give a new sense to Europe, otherwise populism will fill the gap."

"The European Commission is terrified of contagion," Shaw said, adding that populist movements, like the one which drove Brexit, thrive on instability.

Thus, prolonging Brexit negotiations creates a sense of uncertainty, which could allow similar populist movements to take hold in other European countries.

"They want to take every possible measure to reduce the populist pull," Shaw said.

Meanwhile, French President Francois Hollande has his eye on Euro-denominated financial companies in the UK, and wants that sector to be relocated to Paris. It's in Hollande's best interest that Britain hurries up its exit plan. He wants to "hold up the triumph of winning London's financial services for Paris," Shaw explained, putting him in good standing for winning re-election next year against contender Marine le Pen, a Eurosceptic and leader of the right-wing National Front.

Hollande is particularly keen to grab as many banks as he can from London: a sudden rush of banks to Paris could turn his Presidency around.

— Ben Judah (@b_judah)June 29, 2016

Hollande said London losing Euro clearing:

— Ben Judah (@b_judah)June 29, 2016

Kerry's suggestion to walk back the Brexit is a clear reflection of US interests, which is for European markets to be stable. Prolonging negotiations doesn't pose a direct threat to the stability of the US.


Divorce proceedings between a union member and the rest of the bloc won't start until a formal notification is made under article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Until the article 50 notification is made, the UK continues to a member of the EU, as if the referendum never took place to begin with.

One option is to delay and hope that pro-Brexiters either come to their senses or forget about it the whole thing.

"The longer it goes on, people might, bit by bit, realize that this was never a good idea and we ought to carry on," Shaw said. "People may come to the realization that this has already been such a profound shock to the system that we shouldn't go any further."

Related: The Leave campaign is backtracking on immigration promises

Another option would be that incumbent Prime Minister David Cameron, who offered his resignation on Friday, or his successor, put the issue to parliament for a vote. Because the majority of MPs are pro-Remain, it would likely get voted down. This scenario is likely to stoke anger among populists, who voted to leave the EU and feel left behind by an opaque form of government and political elites. Ignoring their will would likely stoke that fire even more.

Cameron, who campaigned to remain in the EU has previously described the referendum outcome as "binding." A petition for a second referendum went viral over the weekend, and gained over 3 million signatures (77,000 were ultimately deemed fraudulent.) The UK has "referendums not neverendums," Cameron said.


Another way to get out of the Brexit would be to call an early general election. Shaw says that would produce a clear political mandate for not triggering article 50 if parliament makes it clear that's no longer people's will.

Another scenario is a watered-down version of Brexit. Boris Johnson, the "Leave" campaigner, former mayor of London, and likely candidate to replace Cameron, broke his silence for the first time since the referendum on Monday to offer a vision of post-Brexit Britain that was widely denounced as "taking the piss" and "full of unicorns." That version — where Britain gets all the best things of Europe, like single-market access and control over immigration — has already been outright refused by Merkel and the EC.

Related: Britain's Nigel Farage to EU leaders: 'You're not laughing now, are you?'

Merkel said that Britain would not be allowed to cherry-pick its way out of Europe.

"These people are deluded to think they can get these things," Shaw said. Giving the UK a fabulous deal sets a dangerous precedent. The EC wants to send a clear message to other members of the bloc, which Max Fisher from the New York Times paraphrased:

"If you want to leave the Union, you will not be rewarded with a sweetheart deal allowing you the benefits of membership without the burden. You will get a hard and painful breakup, so think carefully."

Finally, Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has the authority to veto Brexit. Scots voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. Should Britain go ahead with exiting the EU, Sturgeon has indicated that she will seek a second independence referendum from the UK and then rejoin the EU. If the next British Prime Minister is anti-Brexit, he or she could tell voters that leaving Europe is impossible without Scottish consent. If Cameron's successor is pro-Brexit, he or she could roll back the law that gives Scotland the power of veto.