Wishful thinking, or a legitimate perspective on demonstrations of buyer’s remorse in the UK? It’s no secret, after all, that the Obama administration opposed the “Brexit” referendum that passed last week, which makes John Kerry’s skepticism about its actual implementation a bit self-serving. That doesn’t necessarily make him incorrect, however:
The US secretary of state has raised doubts about whether Brexit will ever happen, suggesting most leave campaigners do not truly believe in Britain’s divorce from the EU and do not know how to achieve it.
Claiming there were a number of ways in which Thursday’s vote could be “walked back”, John Kerry, who visited Downing Street on Monday, said David Cameron was loth to invoke article 50, the EU exit procedure.
He said the British prime minister felt powerless to “start negotiating a thing that he doesn’t believe in” and “has no idea how he would do it”.
Apparently referring to Boris Johnson, one of the frontrunners to replace Cameron, Kerry added: “And by the way, nor do most of the people who voted to do it.”
NBC News reports this morning that questions have already begun to emerge in the wake of the stunning “Leave” victory just days ago. First, the referendum was non-binding, although Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to abide by it. Can the executive initiate Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon treaty without parliamentary approval? That’s just one of many questions, as is the question of why Cameron hasn’t already done so:
Prime Minister David Cameron said during the campaign in February that the British public could “rightly expect” Article 50 to be triggered “straight away.”
Except he hasn’t done that.
The morning he lost the referendum, Cameron announced he would quit as leader and that Article 50 would be triggered by his successor, who likely won’t be elected until September.
The short answer: he may not have the authority to do so.
Cameron implied that the next leader would do it using the government’s executive powers, but the U.K. Constitutional Law Association argues it would need to be put to a parliamentary vote.
Some might see this as a formality, but the referendum was an advisory, non-binding decision. Most lawmakers are actually against leaving the EU and could conceivably use the opportunity to halt what they see as a one-way ticket into the abyss.
The political class in the UK clearly wanted to remain within the EU. If members of Parliament thinks that they can survive electorally while denying the overall will of the electorate, they might just defy the vote and refuse to authorize an Article 50 trigger. Bear in mind that the vote itself was narrow enough (52/48) to argue over the strength of the mandate, at least theoretically.
And since the vote, enough of the Brexit promises have been tempered or walked back that the mood may change the longer Parliament stalls on Article 50 anyway:
However, since winning the vote, several leading “Leave” voices have admitted that Britain may be forced to keep its borders open to EU citizens if it wants access to the bloc’s lucrative single market. …
Hours after the last ballots were counted, Nigel Farage, leader of the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), distanced himself from a pledge by fellow campaigners to divert £350 million ($470 million) on other areas such as the state-run National Health Service.
One solution, particular to parliamentary systems, would be to call a snap election and focus on the Brexit issue. Both Lobour and Liberal Democrats would lick their chops at a chance to run on stopping Brexit, especially since Scotland and Northern Ireland are making noises about exiting the UK to stay within the EU. If the support for Brexit is really that strong in a couple of months, then the Tories would clean up, but they may not be eager to give it a go. A Tory victory would end up being a true mandate for Brexit, while a loss would put an end to it — and that assumes that the Conservatives would actually run to support Brexit by that time.
Right now, though, the problem is that the British public expects Cameron to honor his promise to abide by the referendum, and the EU’s nation-states want immediate action one way or the other to end the “uncertainty” created by the Brexit vote. The UK may not have much time to stall and take stock of their options.
As one analyst put it, with typical British understatement, “it’s a bit of a mess.”