After delaying a vote in Parliament on the Brexit agreement she reached with the European Union, British Prime Minister Theresa May met Tuesday with European leaders. Her hope was that they might offer assurances — especially on the deal’s controversial provisions regarding Northern Ireland — that would calm opposition and persuade recalcitrant lawmakers to vote yes.
But even as she struggled to find support (and worried about a possible challenge to her leadership of the Conservative Party), another option was gaining influential adherents: that Britain should hold a second referendum in which voters would be given the opportunity to rescind their vote in 2016 to withdraw from the EU. A second referendum is still a long shot, but it would offer the best way to correct what is clear now was an impulsive and ill-considered decision.
Many of the voters who supported the “Leave” option in 2016 might have thought withdrawal from the EU would be a simple matter. In reality an abrupt sundering of a long-standing economic and political relationship would be a disaster. It would send shock waves through the British economy and disrupt the lives of Europeans (Britons included) who have become accustomed, among other things, to living and working in other EU countries. Brexit also threatened the peace process in Northern Ireland by raising the possibility of a “hard border” between Northern Ireland, which would remain part of the United Kingdom, and the independent Republic of Ireland.
Precisely because Brexit was such a complicated and consequential proposition, May’s government painstakingly negotiated a detailed divorce agreement with the EU that would control the damage. The agreement protects the rights of European citizens now living in the U.K. (and British citizens living in other EU countries), keeps the U.K. in the European customs arrangement while a permanent trade deal is negotiated and, last and most controversially, aims to prevent a hard border in Ireland. This reflects the recognition that the free movement of goods and people between the north and south are vital to the peace process.
May might yet be able to persuade EU leaders to offer clarifications about the Ireland “backstop” compromise that might calm enough of her critics in Parliament to win approval of the agreement. Certainly the deal is preferable to a “hard Brexit” with no transitional arrangements or provisions for Northern Ireland. (European Union officials have made it clear they will not renegotiate the agreement.)
But the best outcome of all would be a second referendum in which voters would be asked either to approve or disapprove May’s agreement or rescind their support for withdrawal from the EU. If May fails to win approval for her deal from Parliament, such a referendum could conceivably come to pass and the Brexit process could be halted, though it remains unlikely. On Monday, the European Court of Justice ruled that Britain could still reverse course and end its bid to leave the EU right up until its departure date.
It is hard to be sure how many British voters who supported Brexit have developed second thoughts. In 2016 voters favored the Leave option by 52% to 48%. A poll released in September 2018 suggested that 59% of voters would now vote to remain in the EU and 41% would support leaving.
Certainly developments since the 2016 vote demonstrate that disentangling the U.K. from the EU is a far more complicated undertaking than many Leave voters might have realized. The potential impact on the Northern Ireland peace process — an issue that received inadequate attention in 2016 — might alone induce some voters who supported Brexit to change their minds.