Will the British remain in the European Union?

Will the British remain in the European Union?

When David Cameron promised to hold a referendum to decide whether the United Kingdom should leave or remain in the European Union, did he think that the British people would choose to leave the EU? He had no option but to hold the referendum as it was one of the major promises that he made during the parliamentary election campaign in 2015.

After winning the election, he arranged for the referendum to be held the following year and the result was that the UK voted to leave the EU. Cameron resigned and was succeeded by Theresa May who held the home portfolio in the government.

After May took over as prime minister, she enthusiastically began the process of withdrawing the UK from the EU (Brexit). Subsequently, she decided to hold snap general elections and called on the British House of Commons to vote for early elections. Although she did not need a new mandate, May said that early elections were the best way to ensure stability and to strengthen her position in the coming years of Brexit negotiations. She underlined the need for avoiding divisions in parliament over Brexit, saying that if early elections were not held, differences in parliament would cause instability. “If we do not hold the general elections now, the opposition will continue their political manipulation.”

Her conviction was that negotiations with the EU would reach their most difficult phase during the period before the next general election. She challenged the opposition parties to prove that they did not oppose the government simply for the sake of opposing. The opposition Labor Party leader supported her in going ahead with plans to hold the snap elections. However, the results were not what May had expected and were in fact a humiliating loss for her. Earlier, she had had a simple majority and there was no real need for her to rely on other parties. But after the election, May was forced to enter into an alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.

The loss of May and her party was a victory for the Labor Party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn, who demanded that the prime minister resign. But May refused to resign and formed a minority government with the support of the Irish Federalist Party.

May did not give up and proceeded with plans for Brexit even though her options were very limited. Her backing was mainly from supporters of Brexit. Therefore, she entered into strenuous talks with Europeans who hoped that the UK would not leave the EU. They understandably considered this to be a serious issue and were determined to ensure that there would never be a situation in which any other European country would follow the UK’s example, as this would threaten the unity of the EU, especially in light of the rise of the extreme rightists in some European countries. With this in mind, European negotiators put obstacles in the way of British negotiators depriving them of many of the advantages that May and her negotiating team had expected.

May did not give up and continued negotiations until she managed to obtain what she could from the Europeans. However, this did not satisfy members of the House of Commons and hence they rejected her initiative. This rejection was a defeat for May, but she managed to overcome it because of the strength of her personality and her unyielding and resolute nature. This helped her to defy the demands for resignation that came not only from many of the members of the opposition but also from some within her own party. After rejecting the calls for resignation, she promised to recast some of the terms of the Brexit withdrawal deal during the negotiations with the EU. May said that she was determined that the UK would leave the EU with or without a deal. She was able to survive a no-confidence vote, frustrating the moves of her opponents who wanted to put an end to her rule.

One of the remaining options of this iron lady is to hold a second Brexit referendum. However, she has given no indication of contemplating such an option, although many observers believe that if a second referendum were held, the British people might vote to stay in the EU given the difficulties they would face if Britain leaves the EU without a deal.

Similarly, if the UK secures a withdrawal deal on difficult terms, it would be harmful to the interests of the British people, especially considering the fact that the number of people who voted to leave the EU in the referendum was almost the same as the number who voted to remain.

Why does the prime minister insist on ruling out a second referendum? At the same time, the leader of the opposition does not want a second referendum but wants an early election in which he sees better prospects for the opposition.

Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi is a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs. He can be reached at algham@hotmail.com