Dover and Out

Matthew Mirabelli/AFP/Getty Images
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May at a European Union summit, Valletta, Malta, February 2017

Considering the European Union’s unhappy history with national referenda, there was no guarantee that Brexit would mean Brexit, to adapt the slogan adopted by Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May. True, the British people voted to leave the EU by a count of 52–48 percent on June 23, 2016. But the people of several other EU member states had, over the years, similarly voted to show Brussels a collective middle finger and they had been ignored. There were plenty of skeptics who assumed that the ever-resourceful mandarins and panjandrums of the Continent would find a way to ensure that the Brexit vote would suffer the same fate.

These doubters could cite ample precedent. In 2008 Irish voters refused to ratify the Lisbon Treaty codifying (some would say expanding) the EU’s powers, with 53 percent voting no. The treaty needed the approval of all member states to come into force, so Brussels put the squeeze on the Irish—and sure enough, they voted again the following year, this time delivering the right result. As it happened, the same sequence—rejection, followed by a change of heart—had played out in Ireland over the 2001 Nice Treaty (and in Denmark over the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which formally upgraded the earlier European Economic Community into today’s EU). Indeed, the Lisbon accord only arose after the EU tried and failed to adopt for itself a written constitution, along with a flag, anthem, and dedicated “Europe Day.” Voters in both France and Holland said no to that in referenda in 2005. Rather than drop the constitution, Brussels repackaged it as the treaty signed in the Portuguese capital. The EU has a habit of refusing to take no for an answer.

So it was plausible to think that Britain might not leave the twenty-eight-member club after all, despite what its people had said in the Brexit vote. One imagined outcome involved the British government delaying, engaging in endless prenegotiations with the EU, or waiting until the national elections in France this spring and Germany this autumn were out of the way, rather than triggering Article 50—the section of the Lisbon Treaty that allows for the withdrawal of a member state (a situation that has never arisen before). Another version envisaged Britain formally leaving the EU, but keeping its place in the part that matters most: the European single market, which allows goods to be traded as easily between Manchester and Munich as between London and Liverpool. After all, no Briton voted to leave the single market: that wasn’t on the ballot.

But the British prime minister did not attempt either of these approaches. On March 29, Theresa May dispatched a diplomat to play the role of mailman and hand to Donald Tusk, the president of…

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