The EU Consumer Rights Directive — one among a plethora of rights that millions of British voters blithely threw away on Thursday — affords European citizens the right to change their minds after the rather unmomentous action of, for instance, buying some Tupperware. The assumption is that consumers deserve protection from deceptive sales practices. In transactions that involve false promises, the buyer has a right to determine she made a mistake and get her money back.
Why should British voters not now have some analogous way of rectifying a choice that some — perhaps many — now view as having been made in error?
“I was very disappointed about the results [of the EU referendum]. Even though I voted to leave, this morning I woke up and the reality did actually hit me. But if I had the opportunity to vote again, it would be to stay,” a British voter humbly admitted when interviewed at Manchester Airport on Friday.
How many other voters share her “buyer’s remorse”?
And how many people voted Leave as a symbolic protest, confident that as pollsters, bookkeepers, the financial markets, and the media told them, Remain would win? In other words, how many votes were cast for Leave on the assumption it wouldn’t happen?
Never mind. Britain has spoken. What has been done can’t now be undone — at least that’s the consensus voiced by the political establishment. Indeed, some European leaders were quick to reinforce that conclusion by declaring, “leave means leave.”
But is there really no way to reverse Brexit?
Is the notion of a reversal an affront to democracy? Would it dangerously compound the existing instability? Or might it instead reflect a basic human understanding that people individually and collectively on occasions make terrible mistakes and that mistakes can often be rectified.
What inviolable political principle is it that says 65 million people need to suffer the consequences of the ill-considered choices of a minority?
The promise offered by Leave was for “independence,” “sovereignty,” and “taking our country back.” It sounded wonderfully straightforward. The reality of complex, messy, and protracted withdrawal negotiations will reveal, however, that the destination towards which Britain is now headed is actually unknown.
The ballot paper looked simple: Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
But after the voting had finished, the top two questions being asked on Google in the UK were, “What does it mean to leave the EU?” and “What is the EU?”
While making its recommendations on the exact wording of the referendum last September, Britain’s Electoral Commission noted:
Referendum campaigners have a key role to play in informing people what the issues are in a referendum. The campaigns are the main source for highlighting to potential voters the implications of each potential outcome, encouraging people to vote and influencing how they vote. [My emphasis]
Yet as a BBC report in April pointed out:
Just about everything in the EU referendum debate is contestable, as soon as one side produces a “fact”, the other side challenges it with a contradictory “fact”.
At the end of the 16-page leaflet the British government circulated around the UK in April, it said:
This is your decision. The Government will implement what you decide.
Following David Cameron’s decision to step down as prime minister and before the process of EU withdrawal begins, the British people are boarding a ship taking them to a destination unknown led by a captain who has yet to be found.
The European Council says:
We now expect the United Kingdom government to give effect to this decision of the British people as soon as possible, however painful that process may be.
At the same time, it underlines the fact that the:
United Kingdom remains a member of the European Union, with all the rights and obligations that derive from this. According to the Treaties which the United Kingdom has ratified, EU law continues to apply to the full to and in the United Kingdom until it is no longer a Member.
The process doesn’t begin until Britain’s prime minister invokes Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union and who that prime minister is, given that we know it won’t be David Cameron, is a choice that should in fact be determined neither by Conservative Members of Parliament, nor the Conservative Party Conference.
It’s time for a general election.
Whoever then ends up as Britain’s next prime minister will, by the electorate, have explicitly been assigned the task of taking the UK out of the EU.
If it turns out, however, that British voters, through the parliamentary system, end up placing in office another prime minister who unequivocally favors continued membership of the UK in the EU, then it seems perfectly reasonable to conclude that Britain will have spoken once again but this time exercised its right to say, we made a mistake.
Divorce papers once served, don’t have to be signed. They can be torn up.
Whether through a general election or by an undemocratic process, Boris Johnson is likely to become Britain’s next prime minister.
But before that happens, the British public should be in little doubt that by leading Brexit, Johnson was simply trying to hoodwink his way into Downing Street.
This is what fellow Conservative MP and government minister, Anna Soubry, now says:
You look at all the newspaper columns he’s ever written — he’s never said, “I’m for Out.” And he positively told people — people like Nicholas Soames — “I’m no Outer.” And when I confronted Boris with all of this, all he will ever say to me is, “It’ll be alright, it’ll all be alright.” And you know what I think? I think he didn’t think that they would win. That’s why it was going to be alright. But for his own interests, wanting to be Prime Minister, he went for Leave, because it would serve him.