Opinion | International

Why Britain needs a second Brexit referendum

Why Britain needs a second Brexit referendum

The international environment for the UK in 2019 is so different and so much less favorable from June 2016 that we believe a second referendum on Brexit is both justified and urgently needed.

In June 2016, when the Brexit referendum went in favor of leaving the EU, the international environment was benign. Russia posed no direct threat to the UK or its core interests abroad, notwithstanding Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, low-level aggression in eastern Ukraine and military intervention in Syria.

At the same time, working with the United States and its European partners, the UK seemed to have successfully adapted the mission of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to ensure safety and security in 21st century Europe: keeping the Americans in, any serious Russian threats out, and Germans firmly integrated into the West. It was reasonable for British citizens to think that EU added only marginally to the security of the UK.


The international economic environment also looked favorable in the summer of 2016.  It was reasonable then to believe that an independent UK could either reach a mutually beneficial bilateral trade agreement with America or, even better, sign onto what was the nearly completed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). That agreement would have created a huge common market with the U.S., Canada and the EU, serving UK economic interests well because the British government, with a highly effective diplomatic team, had significantly shaped the EU negotiating position.

All of these favorable conditions have gone into reverse.

The U.S. is now led by a president who is hostile to international cooperation even with America’s closest friends. Since World War II, every U.S. administration has – imperfectly but still – fostered greater trade and investment across borders based on the conviction that both America and its trading partner would gain from it. President TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE starts instead from the mercantilist conviction that trade is zero sum. Interested only in agreements that increase U.S. exports and decrease the amount of foreign goods that come into America, by mid-2017 he put  the TTIP negotiations on indefinite hold. It is now clear that Britain cannot hope for a good bilateral trade deal with the Trump administration.


On the security front, President Trump has called into question the value of NATO and has, as we now know, even considered pulling the U.S. out of NATO. Almost all the senior cabinet members and advisors who in the beginning of Trump's presidency reassured NATO partners of their commitment to the transatlantic alliance have left the administration. Maybe greater European defense spending could ultimately strengthen NATO and even restore American commitment to it, but Brexit makes this less likely because it is likely to push the UK and continental European countries toward economic recession.

This comes at a time when Russia has been pursuing a more aggressive foreign policy, including the attempted murder of a former Russian spy living in the UK; interference in the domestic politics of several Western democracies possibly even the original Brexit referendum campaign; and the deployment of new weapons system in Europe that violate arms control treaties it signed.  As a complement to NATO, the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy strengthens the Western commitment to giving Russian President Putin pause before taking an ever more aggressive stance.  Brexit would weaken this commitment and the capacity of European countries to act in foreign affairs at a time it matters ever more.

A second referendum, far from disrespecting the results of the first one, would underscore the sovereignty of the people. The strength of democracy is its capacity to adjust policy when circumstances change. When an originally sensible policy decision of department or agency of the UK government turns out differently under changed circumstances, we expect it to revisit that decision.

Having relied upon a referendum to launch the Brexit process in 2016, it is profoundly democratic to give the people of the UK an opportunity to decide whether to go through with it, now that the circumstances have become clear.  As friends of Britain, we ask you to also consider the changed conditions outside your country.


Tim Buthe is a professor of political science and public policy at the Technical University of Munich, as well as senior fellow at Duke University's Kenan Institute for Ethics. Joseph Grieco is a professor of political science at Duke.