Can Brexit Be Reversed? It's Not Impossible

On Thursday, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, and all hell broke loose. Or did it? While many have predicted far-reaching economic and political consequences of the U.K.’s departure, the Brexit hasn’t actually happened yet. You may, then, be wondering: Is Brexit reversible?

Yes — technically. It’s still theoretically possible that the United Kingdom could remain a member of the EU. Most observers agree, however, that this is a very distant possibility. It’s legally possible, but politically unfeasible.

It’s worth looking at what precisely happened on Thursday, as that will shed some light what may or may not be happening in the near future. U.K. citizens voted on a referendum on whether or not the nation should stay in the EU. By a 52-48 percent margin, they supported withdrawal, or Brexit.

The specifics of what happens next are still a bit hazy — never before has a member nation left the EU, so it’s unclear exactly how the process will play out. In broad strokes, the U.K. government will formally notify the EU of its departure; this will trigger a two-year period of what’s essentially a negotiated divorce, as the the two entities untangle themselves from one another and draft a plan for the U.K.’s actual departure.

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Here’s the thing: The referendum itself is not legally binding. It was, in essence, just an opinion poll of U.K. citizens. The departure process won’t actually begin until the U.K. parliament passes legislation that authorizes the Brexit. And there’s nothing requiring lawmakers to pass such legislation.

That said, it’s very unlikely that they won’t, thanks to the political realities that led to the referendum being held. When Prime Minister David Cameron was running for reelection in 2015, he was opposed, in part, by far-right politicians opposed to EU membership. In an effort to quell this electoral threat, Cameron promised during the campaign to hold a referendum on EU membership if he were reelected. He was reelected, and he stood by his promise.

But the referendum passed. And that one fact makes it unlikely that U.K. lawmakers will try and block the Brexit, even if they're personally opposed to it.

“In practice, Conservative MPs who voted to remain in the EU would be whipped to vote [in favor of the Brexit],” the BBC wrote. “Any who defied the whip would have to face the wrath of voters at the next general election.”

Basically, legislators would be defying the will of U.K. voters if they declined to authorize the Brexit. Sometimes, stuff like this happens — but usually, the threat of being kicked out of office motivates politicians to govern in accordance with their constituents’ desires. And a majority of U.K. voters have made it clear that they desire to leave the EU.