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The Ghost of Brexit Past

Summary:
Now that British Prime Minister Theresa May has finalized an exit agreement with the European Union, a reversal of her country's withdrawal from the bloc has become highly improbable. Like all revolutions dating back at least to the Protestant Reformation, Brexit has now acquired its own momentum. PRINCETON – The European Union has gained member-state approval for an agreement setting the terms of the United Kingdom’s exit from the bloc. But it is still unclear whether a majority of British parliamentarians will approve the deal, given that it appears to leave decision-making power over British affairs in European hands. Cynthia Johnson/Liaison/Getty Images Previous Next

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Now that British Prime Minister Theresa May has finalized an exit agreement with the European Union, a reversal of her country's withdrawal from the bloc has become highly improbable. Like all revolutions dating back at least to the Protestant Reformation, Brexit has now acquired its own momentum.

PRINCETON – The European Union has gained member-state approval for an agreement setting the terms of the United Kingdom’s exit from the bloc. But it is still unclear whether a majority of British parliamentarians will approve the deal, given that it appears to leave decision-making power over British affairs in European hands.

One can reasonably assume that the agreement will be rejected by hardline Brexiteers, who see it as even less satisfactory than the status quo. And there are of course plenty of Remainers who oppose Brexit in any form. Yet, for all of its flaws, the Brexit that Prime Minister Theresa May has negotiated with the EU is likely to happen.

A reversal of the exit process is now highly improbable. Brexit constitutes a revolution, and that means it is bound to follow a familiar historical pattern. As many French learned after 1789, and many Russians after 1917, revolutions can be neither ignored nor stopped.

To be sure, the Brexit revolution has been unfolding in a country with little revolutionary tradition. British legal experts take pride in the fact that their country’s constitutional order evolved gradually over time, rather than through the kind of dramatic political ruptures that have shaped so much continental European history. But the June 2016 referendum put an end to that strain of British exceptionalism. The vote to leave signaled, ironically, that Britain had finally caught up with the rest of Europe. At a time when most Europeans want security and stability, a narrow majority of Britons decided to do something wild and unpredictable.

Some historians see precursors to Brexit in the UK’s September 1931 departure from the gold standard, or in its September 1992 withdrawal from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. But Brexit is not merely about ending a monetary regime – a relatively easy operation that can even produce beneficial policy outcomes – or escaping some irritating feature of modern European political life. Brexit represents a systemic overhaul of everything at the same time.

After decades of membership in the European regulatory regime, achieving a clean break will require a tedious and complicated rewriting of innumerable rules. Even the smallest mistake might lead to devastating unintended consequences. For example, overlooked loopholes could open the door for dangerous or predatory practices; and, more broadly, ambiguous language could render the entire framework senseless or self-contradictory.

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