Guest Contribution: “How to Save the UK (Inside the EU)”

Today, we are pleased to present a guest column written by Jeffrey Frankel, Harpel Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and formerly a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

I see a possible way out for the trap that Brits now find themselves in, a way to keep Great Britain great.

  1. The Scots, under Nicola Sturgeon (First Minister of Scotland), would decide immediately that they will hold a new referendum. This referendum would state explicitly that if the United Kingdom decides to stay in the EU then Scotland will stay in the UK, but if Britain leaves the EU then Scotland will leave the UK. The decision to hold a referendum on Scottish independence would be approved by the Westminster parliament.

  2. That referendum would create a constitutional crisis in Great Britain. This constitutional crisis would genuinely justify a second UK referendum on whether to leave the EU (Brexit), in a way that mere second thoughts after the June 23 outcome do not otherwise justify. Historically, the “Great” was added when Scotland joined the union. It became the “United Kingdom” when Ireland joined. Symbolically: those patriotic Englishmen who campaigned on the Leave side were (mostly) waving the Union Jack. If Scotland were to leave, it would be the end of the Union Jack — where the cross of St. Andrew stands for Scotland, the cross of St. Patrick stands for Northern Ireland, and only the cross of St. George stands for England.

  3. In this second Brexit referendum, the Remain campaign will pick up votes of those committed to preserving the UK intact — in addition to any who have now learned that the leaders of the Leave campaign cannot fulfill promises made regarding immigration, trade, and budget savings. Perhaps the outcome will come out pro-EU this time, which is what happened in the past when other European countries reversed initial anti-integration referenda, in both Ireland and Denmark. (If the EU were willing to make further concessions to the UK that would also help, of course; but it cannot be expected to do so.)

  4. This plan would be pursued by a coalition of four: Sturgeon, some new anti-Brexit Tory leader, some new anti-Brexit Labor politician, and Tim Farron (of the Liberal Democrats). During the period of uncertainty over Scotland, the prime-ministership, the leadership of these three British parties and indeed the very existence of the parties would remain also uncertain. This political crisis further justifies the fundamental rethink. At some point there would be a new general election, fought along Remain/Leave lines. As part of the Remain campaign, its leaders should spell out policies to improve living standards for those who feel they have lost out to globalization and European integration.

  5. Meanwhile, many continental EU leaders will demand that the UK invoke article 50, to start the process of actually leaving. But the UK parliament would nevertheless refrain from doing it, until the referendum process has played itself out.

This post is written by Jeffrey Frankel.

18 thoughts on “Guest Contribution: “How to Save the UK (Inside the EU)”

  1. baffling

    “But the UK parliament would nevertheless refrain from doing it, until the referendum process has played itself out.”

    from what i understand, the referendum itself is not legally binding. only the action of the prime minister and parliament has legal authority. cameron will not sign off to leave the EU. it really boils down to whether the next prime minister is willing to start article 50, and whether the parliament would actually approve such action. your approach is very complicated, and is mostly about excuses to save face. with a new prime minister and MP’s, you can achieve a similar outcome more quickly and with less divisiveness. if the population elects a parliament which will then vote to leave, that is the outcome. if the population votes to elect a parliament which will not leave the EU, then that is also the outcome. the representative democracy in action. the idea of a referendum is not very constructive in a representative democracy. creating further possible outcomes of disintegration, such as scotland or ireland leaving the union, is a mistake. those types of threats created brexit, and its distasteful outcome, to begin with. you cannot bluff if you are unwilling to play your cards when called.

  2. Edward Cadwallader

    Simply elect a Parliament that repudiates the referendum.

    Parliament is sovereign – which the referendum endorsed.

  3. Manfred

    Trade Obama to GB for another four-putt JV player. Things are going so swimmingly well here for the middle class, we will gladly let him go. He can take his golf game to Scotland while working his magic in GB like he has worked it throughout the Middle East. ISIS on the run……yada, yada, yada……blowing things up everywhere.

  4. PeakTrader

    Rather than another U.K. vote and manipulating voters to change their vote to remain in the E.U., the E.U. needs to make major changes.

    Dissatisfaction with the E.U. goes beyond the U.K.. There may be more revolts. Anyway, I think, the E.U. economy is a mess. I can understand the U.K. wanting to get off the train.

    1. Steven Kopits

      The EU, in GDP terms, has under-performed the UK for all but two of the last 19 quarters, that is, since the beginning of the Arab Spring. Curiously, with the fall of oil prices, this gap has eased markedly, and the EU actually bested the UK in Q1. Leaving the past quarter aside, I hardly think it implausible, as a matter of sentiment, that the UK population would seek to free itself from those continental ‘losers’. Paradoxically, this may come just as the tide may be turning, ever the irony in politics.

      Having lived in Europe for a very long time, I can understand the resentment of stifling regulations, and more to the point, a seemingly unaccountable Brussels. How does a citizen influence that? In Hungary, the elections for the MEPs were, if not a joke, something quite obscure, more like ambassadorships, in which politically influential, but undesirable, politicians were shipped out of the country.

      I personally would like to see a more responsive EU, but I have to say, I can’t see it coming out of Brussels, the very embodiment of bureaucracy.

  5. Ulenspiegel

    Dear Prof. Frankel,

    as advocatus diaboli I can easily find a few arguments against the “lawyer” solution you propose – which IMHO focuses too much on UK interest and ignores interests of the EU-27:

    1) The majority of the British people HAS DECEIDED TO LEAVE. Period. Who did not vote is now not in the postion to complain when others have deceided his future.

    2) To support your suggestion means that the EU does what her critics say she would d , i.e. ignoring the democratically expressed will of the people in its member states. This also offers a nice opportunity for Cameron et al. to shift blame and will not cause a shift in UK politics.

    3) There were clear statements of Merkel and co in respect to such a solution: It is not longer on the table for them. IMHO a correct move.

    4) Your solution would simply lead to a continuation of the past problems: The EU has a member that actually does not want to be in a EU that works for more integration, and does therefore not provide constructive contributions, but blocks further attempts. Some member states see an golden opportunity to get rid of this issue with a Brexit.

    The obvious alternative is a clean Brexit, followed by a reapplication of UK/England for full EU membership according to Article 50 in a few years. The benefits of this is that there must be a political movement in the UK that fights actually for EU membership and the people in UK/England have to spend some time to think a little bit harder about some aspects of their politic systems.

    Greetings from Graz! (That’s still in the EU)

    1. baffling

      and if the next prime minister and parliament choose not to file article 50, what are you going to do about it? force the government to adhere to a nonbinding referendum? exactly how can you make GB follow through? will you threaten and target an EU member nation?

      1. Ulenspiegel

        “…and if the next prime minister and parliament choose not to file article 50”

        This would be an interesting situation. IMHO a Tory UK government would be totally discredited, they pushed the referendum.

        At the moment everybody hopes for a mature behaviour on side of UK, i.e. they invoke Article 50 in October latest.

        The gorilla in the room is Article 7, then it becomes really ugly.

      1. Ulenspiegel

        Yes, it is the same Austria where I live as German citizen. 🙂

        It is correct that the FPÖ/BZÖ is not pro-EU, however, they did not run an special anti-EU campaign in 2016, they simply applied their populistic program again and again, the same what Haider did after 2000, EU exit is only a convinient tool, not the main goal. EU exit was removed from their official party program.

        BTW back in 1997, when I came to Austria, Haider was pro-EU, he called people who would not join the huge EU market economically illiterate, in 2000-2010 Austria performed much better than Germany. He became only anti-EU when the EU was political mainstream. Yes, we see populism in pure form, especially when the company run by the Haider family requires immigrants. 🙂

        We see in Austria the same as in UK and Germany, the Austrian citizens in regions with by far lowest share of immigrants vote for restriction of immigration (BZÖ), while regions with high immigrant share vote Green, i.e. pro immigration.

        All attempts to get a referendum for an exit from Euro zone failed in the last years due to the lack of signatures, this tells me a little bit about the importance of the EUEuro zone for msot people.

        What we see was a clear protest vote against the great coalition of SPÖ/ÖVP and the unability of this coalition to communicate their politics. I do not claim that Austrain voters are much more clever than their UK peers or that there are no politicain that use this stupidity. However, I still have to find an Austrian politcian in the government who would perform a stunt like Cameron or Johnson.

        The interesting thing is that there are absolutely no comments of these guys after the UK referendum. They like many of their voters, too, know that the FPÖ/BZÖ has no program and would be in the same postion as the UK Tories when takes serious by the EU.

  6. A nonymous

    Fascinating. Condescending, arrogant liberals thing they can ignore the will of the people. Really Dr. Frankel, do you realize how pompous you sound? The people voted on a referendum. I trust the people one heck of a lot more than I trust “experts” who think they are smarter than the people. Claiming the Brexit camp lead a dis-information campaign that the average person was too dumb to see through only adds to the arrogance.

    1. Bornagaindem

      36% of the people voted to leave. Now it is true that if you don’t vote you shouldn’t complain however that is hardly a resounding endorsement for the leaving. Especially when the reasons for leaving are based on lack of facts.

      Watch this for a careful analysis of why the UK is better off in the EU than out.

      1. Steven Kopits

        The professor in the linked video takes 10 minutes to begin substantive analysis, with nary a powerpoint slide to be seen.

        This Brexit supporter (, a Professor Minford, at least has a single slide to show us, which is better than nothing.

        Given the gravity of the Brexit decision, I have to admit being surprised by the superficiality of the analysis on both sides. I suppose no one (certainly not Boris Johnson!) thought the British would actually go for it. But they did! And only ex-post are we beginning to see what it may mean, which I think is a bit late.

  7. Mike

    Ah yes, a retired power manipulator sees a circuitous way to subvert the will of the people as expressed in an open democratic election. Is this ironic? No, nothing new here . . . move along folks, nothing to see here.

  8. Steven Kopits

    I note I have made several comments above without actually taking a position.

    I would say this: history is being made. The dice are in play, but I do not know where they will land, and it is all about more than just Great Britain.

  9. Axolotl Jones

    I am inclined to think that Ms. Sturgeon probably views Brexit as an opportunity to extract Scotland from the UK. She will have her own complicated set of tactical choices, but I would guess that she will conclude that trying to keep the UK in the EU is unlikely to advance her agenda.

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