LONDON — Only hours after the E.U. referendum results were released last Friday, millions had signed a petition to repeat it. Since then, some of the politicians most outspoken in support of leaving the European Union have virtually gone into hiding, leaving room for speculation over what will happen next.
"I do not believe that Brexit will happen," wrote Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman on Monday, joining a chorus of commentators voicing similar doubts, including Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
In theory, there are several ways Britain could avoid carrying out the referendum's decision to leave the European Union. Legally, the result is not binding, so the Parliament could simply overrule it — but such a move would be considered undemocratic and is unlikely. The new prime minister expected to replace David Cameron in September could also call new elections and — if won by pro-E.U. parties — use that result as a way to override the referendum.
Looking back into E.U. history, it wouldn't be the first time.
"Respect for the outcomes of referendums is perhaps not the most prominent feature of the sorry history of the E.U.," said Philipp Genschel, a professor at the Schuman Center for Advanced Studies. "However, the standard way not to respect the outcome of a referendum is not open defiance ... but the repetition of the referendum until it yields the 'right' outcome."
In fact, the European Union as we know it today was built on a series of rejections of public votes. When the Danes in 1992 declined to accept the Maastricht Treaty — which paved the way for a more integrated political union — the European Union made some concessions and then staged a second referendum in which voters finally approved of it. The same happened in 2001, when the Irish rejected the so-called Nice Treaty as the bloc expanded eastward, and in 2008 when they opposed another treaty over further E.U. integration.
Last year, Greek voters rejected bailout conditions proposed to the country by the European Union. But the leftist government in Athens ended up agreeing to most of those conditions anyway.
Earlier this year, the Dutch voted against closer ties between the E.U. and Ukraine — a decision that was interpreted as a backlash against the hard-line stances of many E.U. governments toward Russia. The Dutch government is now considering simply ignoring the outcome of this referendum.
Some political scientists have argued that the E.U. has always had a troubled relationship with referendums.
"Referendum outcomes are typically respected symbolically at best because it is politically all but impossible to respect them in substance," said Genschel, referring primarily to incidents when voters of one E.U. country have opposed an agreement that was reached by all 28 member states.
In such cases, it remains questionable "whether voters of one member states should be allowed to impose their views on voters in all other member states," Genschel said.
However, the current British case vastly differs from previous E.U. referendums that were ignored: Most voters were aware of the possible repercussions, ranging from the prime minister's resignation to a possible recession. Moreover, "respect for the Brexit vote does not require any cooperation and consent from the other member states," Genschel explained.
As it looks now, Britain continues to head toward the door, with the E.U. pressuring the country to start exit negotiations sooner rather than later. But don't be too surprised if British leaders decide that a second referendum might be necessary — one that yields the result they had hoped for.