A lateral thinker’s view on how to save the United Kingdom

Theresa May can find a better way to carry out the will of the British people, argues Andreas Kraemer

Never mind the Article 50 procedure. An annoyance and a waste of time, it is ultimately inconsequential. The UK will  withdraw the request to leave the European Union. It can do this at any time until the end of the two-year period, whenever the government has come to its senses and found a better strategy to get what the British people want.

This is what they appear to want: the Union of the Crowns maintained, as Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar remain in the EU. England, while remaining under the Crown, leaves, with Wales in tow.

This summary of the will of the people will raise eyebrows and tempers in London. An intricate set of taboos and a centrally imposed Brexit narrative in Westminster would not allow it to be said by anyone with hopes for public office.

At the heart of the self-inflicted pain of ‘Britain leaving the EU’ is a conflict of interest: The government that pretends to represent the UK really speaks only for England, and the City of London seeking to avoid regulation by the EU. England is a country without a legislature and a democracy only by being part of the UK. It has no independent democratic voice, but usurped the UK government and imposed its will on the other nations of Britain.  

The dominant narrative says that the British decided in the EU referendum that the UK should leave the EU at whatever price, that the result is binding and that those who voted against have the right to be heard but not to overturn the outcome of the referendum, and that Brexit is a one-way street, from the day the Article 50 procedure for leaving the EU in exactly two years has started. The UK will then be outside the EU, master of its own destiny and prosperity, united and at peace.

By now most Brits should know this prospectus is false. In fact, Article 50 is not a one-way street. According to Jean-Claude Piris, former diretor-general of the Council of the EU’s Legal Service, triggering Article 50 is merely stating the intention to leave. The intention can be reversed at any time over two years.

Reisende soll man nicht aufhalten: ‘Don’t stop a traveller on his way’. This German proverb reminds us to be tolerant of other people’s choices even if we don’t want to go with them. But what if the traveller is not alone but drags the relatives along against their will, in chains made of unwritten constitution? What if the departure causes pain to all others in the EU and destabilizes the whole neighbourhood? Then there is an obligation to speak up and recall that it is only England and Wales, that wants to leave the EU.  

‘The Swiss know that legitimacy of a referendum requires super-majorities of the people and the constituent parts of the federation’

Some 63 per cent of the registered electorate did not vote for Brexit in the EU referendum on June 23, 2016; only 37 per cent did. The figure for those who did not vote for Brexit rises to almost two-thirds, or 66.1 per cent, if you take into account the  whole voting age population. That was after the rules for UK general elections were applied instead of those for EU elections, and the rules were tweaked to produce a pool of eligible voters biased heavily against the EU. It was a non-binding referendum, where anyone with an axe to grind could register a symbolic protest vote against the government, and balanced people felt safe to stay away from the poll.

Asymmetrical mobilization and demobilization appear to have further tipped the balance to produce the outcome, declared binding after the result was known. The 37 per cent overall was below the threshold of 40 per cent for the vote to be valid in the first referendum on Scottish devolution in 1979. The EU referendum was held in violation of the prior UK standard.

Only one region, England and Wales, had a simple majority of votes cast against staying in the EU (53.3 per cent for Leave on a turnout of 73 per cent; 38.9 per cent of eligible voters and still below the 40 per cent threshold). The three other regions voted to remain: Gibraltar (96 per cent for the EU on 83.7 per cent), Northern Ireland (55.8 per cent on 62.7 per cent), and Scotland (62 per cent on 67.2 per cent). David Cameron, by resigning and thus validating the result, turned a score of 3-1 among the regions for the EU into a victory of England and Wales for Brexit, a feat to raise eyebrows even in FIFA.  

The UK is a federation by any definition. It may be politically centralized, but the nations that share the British Isles have retained their clearly demarcated territories, identities, flags and their separate laws, institutions and customs. They have everything that marks sovereign states and they even field separate national football teams. The Swiss know that legitimacy of a referendum requires super-majorities of the people and the constituent parts of the federation. This lesson is applied in the voting rules in the EU Council of Ministers, but wilfully ignored by David Cameron when he set up the EU referendum.

The UK government should let England (and Wales) become a self-governing nation, an independent country in the British realm, preserving the Union of the Crowns. England should be allowed to leave the EU, as Algeria did in 1962 when it gained independence from France, and Greenland did in 1985 when it gained autonomy but remained part of the Kingdom of Denmark. From the EU’s perspective, this is an internal change in one of its member states.  It cannot but accept the outcome, and make some semi-automatic adjustments to seat numbers in the European Parliament, and voting weights in the Council of Ministers.  

Scotland and Northern Ireland would continue the UK’s membership in the EU without interruption; there is no need to apply again for membership. The status of Gibraltar as a member of the EU also remains unchanged. That may annoy some hardliners in Spain, but at the same time, the precedent for an independent Catalonia in the EU is avoided.

The most obvious advantage would be in Northern Ireland.  The open border with the Republic of Ireland (310 miles) will remain internal to the EU. That protects the Good Friday Agreement and avoids a return of the Troubles. Securing the ports and airports linking Northern Ireland and policing the traffic with England and Wales will be easier and cheaper than hardening the land border.  The price is the establishment of an EU-external land border with the necessary controls along the 96 miles of border between England and Scotland. That is more a psychological than an organizational challenge, and in any case easier and cheaper than securing the much longer Irish border. UK citizens need to be given new passports that state if they live in the EU or in England or Wales.

England will then have the chance to become an independent democracy with its own elected legislature as the other nations in the UK already have.

Everyone gets what the referendum results say they want, and neither the EU nor any of the other member states need to agree. The solution can be obtained by agreement among the nations in the UK and coordination by its various legislatures. It does not depend on any outsiders.

The only force that stands in the way is Theresa May with her folly in taking the whole UK for a hard and complete Brexit.