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Brexit vote: Could there be a do-over referendum?

After Brexit, an online petition calling for a rerun referendum has already gathered a staggering two million signatures. Is such a proposal realistic?

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    Two activists with the EU flag and Union Jack painted on their faces kiss each other in front of Brandenburg Gate to protest against the British exit from the European Union, in Berlin, Germany, June 19, 2016.
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As the British people begin to recover from the initial shock of having voted to leave the European Union – a result that was generally unexpected – the 48 percent who wanted to stay are beginning to take action, pouring their support into a petition that calls for a rerun.

Already, the petition has garnered more than two million signatures, and every minute thousands more are being added, calling on the government to have another referendum in light of the fact that the “leave” vote was less than 60 percent, and turnout less than 75 percent.

But, as impressive as these numbers are, is there actually any prospect of this momentous decision being overturned and a fresh referendum called?

“Politically, the notion of re-running a referendum on membership is unimaginable,” Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe, a London-based independent body of experts, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “I just don’t think it has legs, bearing in mind the level of hypocrisy that would be required on both sides.”

In Britain, Parliament is obliged to consider all petitions supported by at least 100,000 signatures, a target already obliterated on this occasion. Moreover, unless specifically incorporated into the legislation governing a given referendum – which, in this case, it was not – the results are non-binding on the British government.

Only last month, leader of the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, told the Mirror, “In a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way.” As one of the most prominent campaigners for “Brexit,” he was talking about a narrow victory in favor of remaining part of the EU, but the logic should be equally applicable under the current circumstances.

Nonetheless, while the referendum introduces no legal imperative, most analysts agree it does carry a democratic one. Prime Minister David Cameron, in announcing his resignation Friday, agreed.

“The will of the British people is an instruction that must be delivered,” said Prime Minister Cameron. “There can be no doubt about the result.”

Yet, as Anne Deighton, a professor of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford, tells the Monitor in an email exchange, it is hardly surprising that this petition is enjoying such a tide of support.

“There is, generally, a huge hangover in the UK now,” says Dr. Deighton. “The petition is part of the hangover – that inflamed politics has unintended consequences for unwary voters.”

But Cameron, who has in the past specifically ruled out a second referendum, is not the only political heavyweight to take such a stance. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, who also campaigned in favor of remaining in the EU, said of the results “we have got to accept that decision and work out our relationship with Europe in the future.”

In complete agreement with the Labour leader on this point, Richard Whitman, a senior fellow in the Europe program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, describes the petition as “closing the gate after the stable horse has bolted.”

“The real issue now,” Dr. Whitman, who is also director of the University of Kent’s Global Europe Centre, tells the Monitor in an email interview, “is to swiftly determine which of the non-membership relationships with the EU is the most viable proposition.”

EU foreign ministers are of the same opinion, urging the UK to “leave the bloc as soon as possible.”

In practice, this requires the UK to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which will start a two-year countdown, by the end of which, agreement on any future relationship must have been reached. For any deal to be binding, it must be acceptable to all 27 remaining EU member states.

Yet it is the detail of this agreement – assuming one is reached – that could present the possibility of another referendum in Britain. As Dr. Menon tells the Monitor, it all depends on the similarity such an agreement holds to the current state of affairs, the two critical issues being sovereignty and the freedom of movement.

“The potential for a referendum declines the further we go from what we had before,” says Menon. “But it is a possibility, simply because, from a purely analytical perspective, any deal between the EU and the UK would have ramifications almost as significant as the decision to leave.”

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