Thursday is referendum day in the United Kingdom, and politicians and pundits from all sides of the debate are trying to cram in their last words. Those who believe that the country should opt to remain in the EU are reiterating all their well-worn economic arguments; those in favor of leaving are once again focusing on sovereignty and border control. Both are portraying themselves as making the positive case in a season of political negativity.

Those foundations are the renegotiation of the United Kingdom’s relationship with the EU that British Prime Minister David Cameron undertook in Brussels earlier this year. He went to the bargaining table with five key demands. At the time, polls suggested that around two-thirds of British adults would vote to remain in the EU if Cameron won on those points (which included an attempted exemption from the commitment to an “ever-closer union”). Only 26 percent were willing to leave regardless.

British Prime Minister David Cameron at a meeting with European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker during a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, February 2016.
British Prime Minister David Cameron at a meeting with European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker during a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, February 2016.
Dan Kitwood / Pool / REUTERS

It was thus vital for the prime minister and his supporters to insist that he came out of the fray with what he had said he would. But even that is much debated. And one nugget that the “Remain” camp is intent to overlook is not only the unambitious nature of the original renegotiation but also the fact that the resulting agreement has still not been ratified by the other member states. Even if the British public ticks “Remain” on Thursday, in other words, there is still no certainty that the United Kingdom’s European partners would hold up their end of the deal.

Perhaps it is inevitable that, in a campaign based on a black-and-white choice, both sides should play down any gray areas. After all, that is how Cameron planned it. By making the vote come down to either approving his new deal or leaving the EU entirely, the prime minister obviously hoped to clarify, if not simplify, the issue. He was banking on the hope that many of those who are highly critical of the EU might nevertheless balk at the idea of leaving it entirely. Yet in recent weeks, a number of polls have consistently shown “Leave” ahead of “Remain,” and Downing Street has gone into a partial panic. Now, in the hours before the vote, the “Remain” campaign has harped on about there being no going back from a vote to get out.

For the United Kingdom and Europe, the only question is which variety of unpredictability we will choose.

Yet plenty of Brussels-watchers are dubious. The EU has never been good at giving up power, and it has excelled at ignoring electorates. Readers will recall the moment in 2005 when the Dutch and French publics were invited to vote to ratify a new EU constitution that involved further integration. Both electorates declined the offer, only for the EU to push on. Likewise, in Ireland, the EU fell back on its habit of asking the public to vote and then asking them to vote again (or simply ignoring the result) when the electorate came up with the wrong answer.

From the very outset of the Brexit debate, there were those—including former London Mayor Boris Johnson, who favors leaving—who suggested that a “Leave” vote might not, in fact, be a vote to fully leave, but a signal to Brussels that the United Kingdom demands a deeper renegotiation that results in more substantial opt-outs and other special treatment. This line of thinking was swiftly brushed aside, both by the prime minister, who needed the vote to look final, and by the “Leave” campaign, which couldn’t look as though it wanted out but only sort of.

But after Thursday, all such gray areas may well be explored. Although a significant victory for “Remain” (a win by a ten percent margin or more) might well satisfy the country that the issue had gone away, it might also satisfy its EU partners that further British obstreperousness is both unwarranted and insincere. If 60 percent of the voting public says that it wishes to remain in the EU, then future British governments of any political stripe will hardly be able to keep playing their traditional card, which they have used to great effect, of threatening fellow Europeans with a UK exit. After all, should Cameron or any other future prime minister warn of deep euroskepticism among the British public, Brussels would understandably just point to the recent referendum. And so whatever British leverage does exist will be lost.

David Cameron and George Osborne in Blackpool, England, October 2007.
David Cameron and George Osborne in Blackpool, England, October 2007.
Toby Melville / REUTERS
 

Should the vote be close (a 52 percent win for “Remain,” for instance), then the British people could still plausibly feel that the issue of the EU had not gone away and the European Commission—sensing the long-term repercussions—might be more willing to rein in its expansionist tendencies. The eurocrats may have ignored the Dutch, French, and Irish electorates in the past (not to mention the Greeks) but it is possible that a knife-edge result would give future British negotiators a useful deterrent.

The United Kingdom could use its new leverage to push for any number of reforms, from changes to EU fishing and agricultural policy all the way to migrant quotas, the most toxic issues over which the EU is currently losing its public support. (By contrast, a United Kingdom that had voted 60-40 in favor of “Remain” would find it exceptionally difficult to avoid whatever migration obligations the commission forces on it.) The same applies to a shared financial obligation when, as expected, Greece defaults on its next round of debt repayments next month. A union in which the United Kingdom overwhelmingly votes to remain is not a Europe in which the United Kingdom can quite so readily pick and choose. The country will have obligations that it will—quite rightly—have to fulfill.

All these options have been, to some extent, raised in the public debate. The one that has been utterly quashed is what would happen if British voters opt to leave. Contrary to the prime minister’s insistence that “Leave” means go, it is perfectly imaginable that after such a vote, the EU would go into panic mode. It could very well step in with an offer of a meaningful renegotiation. A new deal’s makeup would depend both on what other EU members offer and also on who is in Downing Street this time next week. For if the country votes “Leave,” even Cameron’s closest allies admit, he will have his own exit to make. His chancellor and right-hand man, George Osborne, will almost certainly leave office, too. The whole country—and indeed continent—will be in the realm of the unknowable. Perhaps it was always so. But for the United Kingdom and Europe, the only question is which variety of unpredictability we will choose. 

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