EU must realise there’s a 3rd option: no Brexit at all

by Hugo Dixon | 12.10.2018

As the Brexit talks enter their final stage, the European Union should remember that there aren’t just two scenarios: that the UK leaves with a deal or without one. There’s a third: that the UK doesn’t leave at all.

Indeed, the chance that Brexit will be cancelled entirely is rising. Even if Theresa May gets a deal, her chances of ramming it through the UK Parliament aren’t great.

Impossible Trinity: ERG, DUP and pro-Europeans

The prime minister faces a near-impossible Trinity: she has to win over Brextremists such as Boris Johnson, Tory pro-Europeans and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Although she can satisfy any two of these groups, she will need close to a miracle to win over all three simultaneously.

There are admittedly a handful of Labour Brexiters who will back the prime minister come what may. But they are counterbalanced by a similar number of pro-European Tories who are committed to a new referendum, or “People’s Vote”, at the end of the talks.

If May comes back with a deal, she may be able to win over other pro-European Conservatives. But Johnson’s troops will be hopping mad. After all, the whole point of Brexit for them is to “take back control”. The sort of half-in-half-out deal May is hoping to clinch would mean losing control. The former foreign secretary has said it would be “substantially worse” than staying in the EU.

There is a hard core of perhaps 20 MPs who will not succumb to any amount of arm-twisting. That’s more than enough to sink a deal – even without factoring in the possibility that the DUP’s 10 MPs will desert the prime minister if she agrees to regulatory checks in the Irish Sea, something its leader has called a “blood red” line.

May’s main hope is therefore to win over more Labour MPs to her camp – with the argument that her deal is better than crashing out. But claims that up to 30 are susceptible to her wooing are overblown.

When the EU looks at the prime minister’s near-impossible task, it may be tempted to cut her some slack. After all, it too will be damaged if the UK crashes out with no deal.

Little chance of crashing out

But this would be the wrong conclusion because the chance of the UK charging over the abyss is even smaller than May’s chance of ramming a miserable deal through Parliament.

Sure, if she breaks off the talks without a deal, the Brextremists will cheer her to the rafters. They will also be delighted if they manage to vote down any deal she comes home with. But she will then have a massive rebellion among pro-European Tories – even those who have backed her so far.

Take Amber Rudd. The former home secretary has been rallying MPs behind the prime minister, saying they must back May against the Brextremists. But these loyalists are not possessed by demons and will not, like the Gadarene swine in the Bible, follow her over the cliff to destruction.

  Join us at the  

  March 23rd | Noon | Park Lane, London  

As Rudd said this month, a People’s Vote was “absolutely” preferable to quitting the EU with no deal at all. There may be around another 40 Tory MPs in a similar position.

Note too that the Labour Party has given qualified support to a People’s Vote and the rest of the opposition backs the idea. Rudd’s comments suggest there are enough Tories to force such a referendum if the only alternative is crashing out.

The electorate would then probably prefer to stay in the EU. Public opinion is already turning against Brexit as people see that the talks aren’t going to plan. When they are complete, voters will see it is nothing like the “cake-and-eat-it” option Johnson promised in the referendum.

Positive vision

What’s more, pro-European campaigners have learnt lessons since 2016. They can’t just re-run David Cameron’s Project Fear. They must also stress the benefits of membership – to our power, prosperity and peace.

Pro-Europeans know, too, that they need to address the reasons that led many people to vote for Brexit in the first place – such as lack of investment in our crumbling health service and failure to control migration, especially from outside the EU. A People’s Vote campaign would, therefore, be very different to the 2016 referendum.

As European leaders prepare for [next week’s] summit, they should reflect that Brexit is an act of geopolitical self-harm. It will divide Europe when we need to be strong in the world – when Vladimir Putin is undermining our democracies, when Donald Trump is tearing up the world order and when China is increasingly flexing its muscles.

The EU, of course, must not seek to punish the UK. It should offer May the best deal it can, consistent with its principles and interests. But it shouldn’t either be party to any fudge that keeps the British public in the dark about what Brexit means until after the UK has left.

After offering the prime minister such a deal, the other leaders should then watch how the domestic political drama unfolds. They may be pleasantly surprised.

This column is being published simultaneously with Euractiv.

Want more InFacts?

Click here to get the newsletter

Your first name (required)

Your last name (required)

Your email (required)

Choose which newsletters you want to subscribe to (required)
Daily InFacts NewsletterWeekly InFacts NewsletterBoth the daily and the weekly Newsletter

By clicking 'Sign up to InFacts' I consent to InFacts's privacy policy and being contacted by InFacts. You can unsubscribe at any time by emailing [email protected]

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

Tags: , , Categories: UK Politics

20 Responses to “EU must realise there’s a 3rd option: no Brexit at all”

  • Theres always that 3rd option to ignore the democratic vote made by a majority, a vote taken in a country that brought democracy too the world. Keep putting your extreme left statements up against extreme left ideology, eventually things should become self evident.

  • Richard,
    If the 2016 EU Referendum was such a fine example of democracy why not have just one general election and let it count for perpetuity? I always get the feeling that there is a level of paranoia amongst the more ardent brexiteers, that they are well aware the final deal will be awful, so better get it done quick! It is a bit like a used car sales man who has sold an unwitting customer a Jaguar only to find he has really purchased a clapped out Mini.
    There has been plenty of opportunity for Brexit supporters to set out the wonderful advantages of their choice and here we are two and half years later with diddly squat. We are still hearing vacuous statements like “Taking back control”. What does that mean? Is the man in the street going to help make the laws of the land? Or in reality, does it mean the likes of Jacob Rees Mogg can rub out the EU worker directive, which actually helps protects many ordinary employees?
    Your comment about left wingers is interesting. To most observers the hard left and the hard right are the most enthusiastic about Brexit. Logic tells me that both of those groups cannot really be satisfied simultaneously. I consider myself a moderate, as I suspect many UK citizens are. 17.4 Million people will not be heart broken and up in arms if Brexit was to be stopped, because a fairly significant number now realise they were conned by unrealistic promises which cannot be fulfilled, by dishonest politicians.
    I know people who did not vote in 2016 because they felt that they had insufficient data upon which to make a decision, but would now vote to Remain.
    I know there is a hard core of Brexit supporters who want Brexit at whatever cost, but the only way to determine the true strength of that feeling is to have a vote now we are seeing what it really means. The future generations of UK citizens deserve better than a blind Brexit deal for the benefit of the few.

  • Tony
    I agree with you entirely over the comparison with voting in a general election, now on that point, general elections are held every 5 years, now using that as a rule, membership of EU/ Common market are held every 41 years, I make the next one around 2057, unless you want to count from when we leave which would take it to 2060, which do you prefer, either is good with me.

  • My point, as I am sure you are aware is that an electorate can change its mind in the light of the emergence of new facts. in this case, any facts. Todays article in the Which magazine reported in the Daily Mail online version underlines that ordinary people are now really worried about the negative impacts of Brexit. I note that you did not comment on my comparison with the used car salesman. If you want to buy a dud vehicle, well that’s your choice, but Brexit is asking us to all share in the folly. I think people should get a choice before they decide to drive it off the forecourt, now that it is obvious it has no steering wheel.

  • While I may agree with the theoretical option of staying ‘in’ I am far from sure whether that is actually available.
    I would be happy to be contradicted, but I am told that all 27 other member states would have to agree unanimously to reverse Article 50 – and the likelihood is that such an agreement, if at all, would have many additional requirements.
    For instance, would membership of the Euro be demanded? I imagine that would be a step too far for all but the most committed, not least due to the parlous state of that highly contrived vehicle.
    So, prior to any consideration of a People’s vote, at which such a third option as staying in be included, it would be very helpful to get some more information on the terms or, ideally, a commitment from the 27 of the availability of returning under the original terms.

  • The 27 would be deluding themselves – and undermining their own interests – if they relied on the possibility of a Second Referendum to play hard ball – rather than compromise with a view to reaching a mutually acceptable deal. They would be taking an awful risk if they deliberately held back in the belief that this would set the scene for a Second Referendum. Even if that were to happen, a negative EU negotiating attitude could turn even some pro-Europeans against remaining in the EU, while it would almost certainly harden the Europhobes in their opposition to EU membership. The EU would be playing with fire at a time when the leaders of France and Germany least need a blaze along the French Atlantic sea ports or around the German car industry – and also when the rest of the 27 have enough areas of disagreement between themselves without adding to that tally. The safest bet for all concerned must be a compromise leading to the least worst option for all. The aim is not perfection but the least harm. And that requires good will and an ability to work together in good faith.

  • Chris, we can unilaterally withdraw A50 without the need for agreement by any other member and without the loss of current concessions. That has been confirmed.

  • Margot
    The suggestion in your comment is that we should expect the EU to change the way it operates for the benefit of one departing member. Of course, I want the best deal for the UK but to expect them to do that is unrealistic. As much as they want to do future business with the UK, they are not going to offer better or even equal terms than they do to members.
    We are never going to match the deal that we have now. Nor will we strike more favourable deals with non-EU countries than the mighty EU can – to think we can is a Brexit fantasy.

  • I suggest that it would be a grave mistake to conduct any ” then, let’s stay” campaign on the basis of how great the EU is. The EU has got a lot wrong, not least in trying to engineer/coerce political union without first building coherence and democratic participation. Furthermore, the conditions surrounding any potential ‘peoples’ vote’ will certainly include a great deal of blame-shifting – that the EU has clearly demonstrated its determination to punish any opposition and impose its ideology and dictatorial rules come what may, and we are better off out it; or that the British negotiators have been **** poor, and a harder line would have produced a better deal.
    Against this somewhat unpromising background, perhaps the only effective campaign is one which says: no deal should actually mean what it usually means – we keep what we have got; and what we have got is already pretty nearly 52% out, complete with a substantial budgetary rebate. More importantly, we will make the EU behave in the future by refusing to ‘gold plate’ their stupid regulations, challenge their right to dictate rules, use our existing rights to limit freedom of movement to labour (not everyone), limit welfare payments according to residency conditions etc. etc. – in other words, behave like many other member states. Let them try and kick us out when we don’t follow their rules. If they don’t like it, they can lump it.
    Of course, a primary plank in this campaign is simply that ‘we don’t care what the lawyers say about Article 50, we simply tear it up, rescind, revoke and indefinitely suspend it – now (EU) do what you like – we are still here, and there is nothing you can do to stop us’ – isn’t that taking back genuine control?

  • Richard Smith: What you don’t seem to understand is that any vote in a democracy can be undone by a new vote.

    That’s how democracy works!

    In a democracy, no result is permanently binding, as any democratic decision can be undone by a new democratic decision. If that were not the case, it would not be a democracy; it would be a dictatorship.

    That’s how democracy works!

    In a democracy, we can campaign for whatever we believe in, even after losing a vote.

    That’s how democracy works!

    But we can only ever win if the majority agrees with us at the next democratic opportunity to cast a vote.

    That’s how democracy works!

    If a vote were to be binding for all time, as you seem to suggest it should be, then we would have a dictatorship, but any democratic decision can be undone by a new democratic decision.


  • “…a vote taken in a country that brought democracy too the world.”

    No, that would be Greece in ancient times, often referred to as ‘the birthplace of democracy’.

    The United Kingdom is not a country. It is a union of three countries, Scotland, England and Wales, and one province, Northern Ireland.

    It should be “to the world,” not “too the world.” Sorry, but spelling is important!

    Have a nice day!

  • Superb analysis David.

    Let’s be brutally honest, the EU is scared to death of us leaving and thriving. But the negotiating position they have taken up (that is to demonstrate to other members that leaving is a bad idea) is the wrong way to go. I am not suggesting that they should not look to achieve a deal that is best for them but the decision to leave has been made and I am convinced that us leaving on good terms would be good for the EU itself. They then need to change more towards a trading block (which is what we all wanted in the first instance) and absolutely move away from the notion of a federal super state. They most definitely need to start addressing the concerns of member states, particularly Greece and Italy otherwise I genuinely believe the whole organisation will collapse. Greece (and probably Italy) need to be out of the Euro (possibly temporarily) and assisted financially to get their economies back in order. The whole organisation needs to be more flexible instead of continually obsessing about it’s own survival. I was impressed by Lord Alderdyce in the house of Lords who made a superb speech with regards to the Northern Ireland border and how through cooperation of people the issues will be solved, and even suggesting that in 15-20 years that a united Ireland is possible.
    I am of the opinion that if the EU makes fundamental change then we as a nation would love to re-join.

  • Quire right — UK, EU and other international lawyers have confirmed that the UK government could unilaterally withdraw the Art 50 letter up to March 29 next year. The later such a move took place would result in a lot of hassle but would be welcomed by most of business and industry and probably result in a boost to the UK economy and jobs. No doubt Vladimir Putin would be unhappy but that is a different issue. Obviously if there was a move to remain in the EU decided by a UK government, the House of Commons or a new referendum after the end of March, the situation would be much more difficult and would probably need the unanimous agreement of the remaining 27 EU states.

  • What none of the ardent pro EU commentators are saying on this site is the need for the EU to change. The leave result was due to the EU itself and the useless politicians in this country who continually lie about immigration and the implementation of EU rules. We would be an international laughing stock if we now crawled back to the EU on exactly the same terms.

  • Richard Smith, You are either blind to the truth or a troll or both, who knows? It has been clearly demonstrated that the skulduggery used by the leave group is and was without limit and we have only uncovered the tip of what actually went on and what can be proven beyond a doubt. To claim that Cameron fought a hard battle to remain and therefore it was a level playing field is a joke that is no longer funny. The only winners in the brexit affair will be the wealthy, entitled and privileged sectors of society and I assume you are a part of their team.

  • Could you confirm what is the basis of our right to cancel – under the terms we ad in 2016 – and when you mention that it gets more difficult then closer we get, please explain what this involves, if we do have the right to cancel?
    Many thanks for your view on this …

  • The decision to invoke (or revoke) article 50 notice is sovereign and therefore only a matter for the UK. This position is obvious, has been confirmed by Lord Kerr (who drafted it) and many EU leaders have consistently said they would welcome a change of mind by the UK. The position has yet to be confirmed in law but has been referred to the ECJ.
    Informed sources suggest that the EU would suspend the A50 notice period if we have a further vote where remain is an option. The French (amongst others) have confirmed that UK membership would remain on its existing terms.

    Ever Closer Union is simply a declaration of intent which NONE of the existing 28 states wish to take to the point of creation of a superstate: for those too dim to understand it, the equivalent is going to church and praying for world peace – a lovely idea, but one that (sadly) will never be available.

    We do not have to chose to be poorer, less influential and more insular. Three mechanisms exist to prevent this: A government U-turn; parliament asserting its sovereignty; or a people’s vote (seeking to endorse or reject the deal and therefore not a re-run of the badly flawed 2016 referendum).

    Not one person has been able to come up with any credible economic or social benefits of Brexit for the simple reason that there are none.

  • Peter,

    The leave vote was not due to the EU itself. Very few people in this country know the first thing about the EU. It was due (in part) to a false impression of what the EU is like fostered by lying politicians and lying newspapers over many years.

    We already are an international laughing stock. Even if we were not, having the courage to admit you have made a mistake is preferable to stubbornly continuing on a ruinous path through pride.

  • Europe will loose too in the cliff edge scenario. Well, here’s a test on how educated and well informed this island is. Indeed Dutch is my native language whilst I also master German. This allows me to have a bit extra information as apposed to the BBC watchers amongst us. The Dutch government has put the economic damage as a result of Brexit on the 35 Billion mark. That is the damage done to the Dutch economy as a whole in trade, supply, manufacturing, transport, etc. That is a lot of money. And indeed that hurts. However, help is at hand and agreed upon. Together with Belgium the low countries will suffer most outside the UK from Brexit but this is recognised by the EU. So the NL will not have to bear this loss on it’s own, it will be divided over the entire EU. Great to be in an insurance company with 27 branches!
    The cliff edge is calculated by the fully independent CBS at a cost of 700 Billion. That is sterling and indeed the cost for Britain. Of course the Britts have just thrown their insurance policy in the bin so………..pay for them selves. Indeed the EU is a bad bad thing ?? Oh and before i forget: I travel cross Channel every 2 or 3 weeks. I look shaven, my car is clean with no dents and all lights work. Yet every crossing I have my passport checked, car checked, boot checked, story checked. Who is in control? Only the HRMC ! No other borders give you this fuss for thousands of miles from Dover and Calais. Sorry facts like these are never ever on the BBC, ITV, Sky or in the British newspapers. Please take back control !