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Why There Could Be a Second Brexit Referendum

One thing that has become abundantly clear since Friday morning is that the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union doesn’t actually settle anything. Not only is neither the government nor parliament bound by it—the referendum was “advisory,” rather than “mandatory'”—under the EU’s Treaty, the process of divorce can’t begin until the member state that wants to leave formally notifies the rest of the union. Outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron basically passed the buck for that on Friday, saying that would be a decision for his successor to make. But his successor may not be in place until September.

That creates time and space for a lot of politicking, in which tempers may cool down, and the mood in the U.K. may swing back to Remaining as the full costs and implications of ‘Brexit’ sink in. At the same time, politicians on the Continent may repent of their knee-jerk desire to punish the country for wrecking their integrationist dreams, and remember the value of the British market, its financial expertise and its diplomatic and counter-intelligence clout.

The EU’s past record gives more than one example of how this could happen.

In 1992, Denmark voted to reject the Maastricht Treaty—which was an update of the EU’s founding charter—refusing to join the economic and monetary union. The EU subsequently allowed Denmark the same exemption that the U.K. had won for itself the previous year, the Danes voted again, and the whole project continued on its merry way. Ireland has twice rejected EU Treaty changes by referenda, first in 2001 (the so-called Treaty of Nice) and then again in 2008 (Lisbon). On both occasions, after some minor changes, the Irish were offered a second referendum and changed their minds to vote yes.

There are important differences between then and now, of course. Those referenda were all initiated by changes to the treaty dictating the powers of the EU, which had already been agreed to by all the governments of the member states. By contrast, the U.K.’s vote was a unilateral and spontaneous rejection of the status quo. And the U.K. has a track record of deeply ingrained skepticism towards the whole “Grand European Vision” thing, while the Irish and Danes have generally enjoyed being part of a bigger community that can restrain a large overbearing neighbor (Britain and Germany, respectively). There are good reasons to think that some British voters really do want out, whatever the consequences.

But there are important similarities too. The one that jumps out at you is that, despite three months of campaigning, many voters appear not to have understood the consequences of what they were voting for. A survey in Ireland after its rejection of the Lisbon Treaty found that ignorance of the issues at stake was the main reason cited by those who voted against it.

Another similarity is that such referenda almost invariably turn into straw polls on satisfaction with the status quo in general, rather than focusing on the question on the ballot paper. More than one British voter believed that they could register a protest vote without it having actual consequences.

With the value of U.K. stocks, pension funds, and the pound plummeting, others might—with the benefit of three months’ cooling down—want to rethink the cavalier way in which they dismissed the warnings of “experts” like the Governor of the Bank of England and the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund about the financial and economic damage of Brexit.

And another intriguing possibility, highlighted by FT columnist Gideon Rachman Monday, is that the man who actually led the Leave campaign, Boris Johnson, if he does actually succeed Cameron as prime minister, may turn his coat once again as soon as he moves into 10 Downing St.

Calling a second referendum in the U.K.—the apparent wish of over 3.75 million people—would be an act of staggering cynicism and betrayal by Johnson personally (see the tweet below), and would only reinforce the perception that Europe and its metropolitan elite merely consult the poor and disaffected until they get the answer they want.

But there are no rules to prevent it. There are plenty of reasons to think that, having missed its first chance, the British public would return to a more habitually pragmatic view of the world in three months’ time. And despite all the outrage from professional Eurocrats, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the rest of northern Europe anxious to keep the Brits on board, it would be a major break with past form for the EU not to look for one last, desperate compromise first.