Can Brexit be stopped?

Just as hardline Brexiters are demanding an immediate exit, pro-EU campaigners' calls for a peoples' vote are gaining momentum. Can the UK invoke article 50, and what would a future relationship look like?

“Until negotiations come to an end, there is at least a chance to reopen the door,” declared French president Emmanuel Macron last year. It would be easy to dismiss such optimistic talk as wishful thinking on the part of one of Europe’s most outspoken supporters of the EU project, but a recent court ruling backed up his words.
 
In a ruling on 10 December 2018, the European Court of Justice stated that the UK could cancel Brexit without the permission of the other 27 EU members. In addition, ECJ judges ruled that the UK has the right to cancel its invocation of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty without altering the existing terms of the UK's membership.
 
The UK government and the European Union opposed the case, which was brought by a group of anti-Brexit politicians who argued the UK should be able to unilaterally halt Brexit.
 

Theresa May's deal

 

The Brexit plan that Theresa May originally presented to Parliament in 2018 failed to gain support and was defeated by 432 votes to 202, a record defeat for any government on a vote in the Commons. A second meaningful vote was also roundly defeated - albeit by a reduced margin of 149 votes - despite the PM's attemps to seek further legal reassurances from the EU that any measures put in place would not be permanent.
 
As a result, Ms May asked the EU for an extension to the Article 50 period, beyond its initial expiration of 29 March. Leaders of the remaining 27 EU nations agreed, but the length of the extension is dependent upon whether or not the Prime Minister can get the deal through the House of Commons.
 
Providing that she can successfully win parliamentary backing through a third “meaningful vote” (MV3), then a short technical extension to 22 May will apply for the purposes of passing the necessary legislation. If she fails to do so, then the delay will only run until 12 April, at which point the Prime Minister would be required to “indicate a way forward”. 
 

A second referendum

Given the political toxicity of revoking Article 50, a more realistic prospect is a second referendum on any Brexit deal that is reached. A YouGov poll conducted on 27/28 February 2019 revealed that, in head to head comparisons, 54% of Britons would prefer a second referendum over the proposed deal, compared with 46% who want no deal.
 
But when compared with May's deal, that result was much tighter, with 51% supporting a referendum, and 49% preferring the existing deal.
 
After Labour’s Brexit plan which sought a Brexit deal involving a customs union was defeated by 323 votes to 240 last week, Jeremy Corbyn has formally indicated that the party would back a second referendum, including an option to remain in the EU.
 
This could gain support from both extremes in the House - groups who are calling for the UK to revoke Article 50 and reamain in the EU, and hardline Brexiters who are dissatisfied with PM May's proposed deal. 
 
Indeed, in early February, the main groups opposed to Brexit agreed to pull together under the banner of the grassroots co-ordinating group, or GCG, to help make a second popular a vote a reality. The newly formed Independent Group also supports a new vote.
 
54%
Percentage of Britons who would prefer a second referendum over no deal
51%
Percentage of Britons who would prefer a second referendum over a deal
On 23 March, more than a million protesters marched in London to demand a second vote on Brexit. Organisers said that the Put it to the People protest, one of the biggest demonstrations in recent British history, was "too big to ignore".
 

Brexit timeline

While Theresa May has ruled out a second referendum under any circumstances, there is growing support for it among MPs and it could take place if she performed a U-turn. Labour also recently changed tack, aligning with with Tory Europhiles and other opposition parties in calling for a vote on the final deal.
 
Any referendum would take time to put in place, but Brussels would be inclined to grant an extension in this scenario. The question then would become how a popular vote should be worded. Hardline Brexiters would favour a vote on choosing the negotiated deal or an immediate exit without a deal, arguing that the mandate to leave has already been won. Others are advocating a choice between May’s Chequers deal or staying in the EU.
 
A third option is a three-way choice between May's deal, no deal or remaining in the EU. Voters would be asked to indicate their first and second choice so that the least-popular option could be eliminated and the vote redistributed.
 
A second referendum is unlikely to make the issue go away. Brexiters would continue to campaign vigorously, buoyed by resentment that the original vote was undermined.
But a second referendum is unlikely to make the issue go away. Brexiters would continue to campaign vigorously, buoyed by resentment that the original vote was undermined. It’s also possible that, under pressure from Eurosceptics, the government may eventually refuse to comply with a piece of EU legislation, triggering a crisis in European integration.

Demonstrators take part in a Brexit protest during the Conservative Party Conference in September 2018

Implications of staying in the EU

On the surface, the UK’s position in the EU would remain unchanged should the decision to leave be reversed. It would continue to have free access to the single market with external agreements made on a common basis. Freedom of movement for EU nationals would also remain in place, and the UK would continue to be subject to all laws and regulations whilst being obliged to contribute to the EU budget.
 
But the reality is the UK would probably find it difficult to simply pick up where it left off. It would remain in the EU on the same terms that it rejected in 2016, and it’s likely we would see a resurgence of Ukip as an obstructionist force in Brussels. It would also be difficult for a UK government to approve an EU budget that was acceptable to other member states after having placed so much emphasis on waste.
 
The UK would probably find it difficult to simply pick up where it left off.
The EU has also moved on since the Brexit vote, shortly after which European Council president Donald Tusk declared that the UK’s departure could “threaten western political civilisation”. There are questions over the UK’s input and participation in projects that have been driven since Article 50 was invoked. In particular, the EU has pressed ahead with plans for greater defence co-operation, specifically because the UK was not present to use its veto.
 
Any short-term changes to the UK’s current trajectory, however, will need to be considered in the long-term context of a major political issue that remains unresolved. 

Brexit insights and analysis from Investec