A soccer precedent for a Brexit revote?

By LEONID BERSHIDSKY | Bloomberg View | Published: January 12, 2018

Nigel Farage, that most notorious of Brexit agitators, hasn’t made any friends by suggesting that Britain should “maybe, just maybe” have a second referendum on EU membership. Fellow nationalists, the Conservative government, the opposition Labour Party — no one seems to want a replay of the 2016 vote. But even if Farage is just fishing for attention, he’s essentially right. Here’s a soccer analogy the Brits might want to consider.

In 1999, Arsenal was the second strongest team in England’s Premier League. On Feb. 13, in a cup game, it faced a much weaker opponent, Sheffield United. With the score at 1-1 in the second half, a Sheffield player was injured and one of his teammates knocked the ball out of play so the doctors could attend to him. Arsenal got the right to throw the ball back into play. The convention in such cases in England is to return it to the injured player’s team, so an Arsenal player tossed the ball toward the Sheffield goalkeeper. But Nigerian player Nwankwo Kanu, making his debut for Arsenal in that game, picked it up and sent a perfect pass to Dutch star Marc Overmars, who scored easily. Despite Sheffield’s vocal protests, the goal was allowed to stand, since no formal rules had been broken. Arsenal won 2-1.

Arsenal players and legendary coach Arsene Wenger, who is still Arsenal’s manager, didn’t want the win, though — not if it was obtained by such unsportsmanlike means. Arsenal and Sheffield jointly asked the Football Association, English soccer’s governing body, for the game to be replayed. Ten days later, Arsenal beat Sheffield again, by the same 2-1 score.

Many who oppose a second referendum make the argument that after a government calls a referendum and bills it as final, it undermines democracy and the government’s credibility as an institution to allow a revote. Bloomberg View columnist Therese Raphael mentioned this consideration in a column arguing that it was too soon to consider changing course. Nothing, however, happened to the FA’s credibility when it called for a rematch — which, of course, was far less complicated than arranging a national vote, agreeing on the specific questions and the timing of the ballot.

Like the situation that led to the Overmars goal, the Brexit vote broke no formal rules. It was, however, fundamentally unfair. U.K. voters had no idea what leaving the EU would mean in real life. The government itself had only a vague idea what would happen. Everything that has happened in Brexit negotiations over the past year shows the U.K. side is learning as it goes. The key missing element of the puzzle in 2016 was how the U.K.’s trade partners, both inside and outside the EU, would handle Brexit. It couldn’t be reliably predicted, but it’s obvious now: The EU is determined to deny the U.K. critical trade advantages, and other trade partners aren’t filling the void.

It’s also already clear that the Leave campaign’s promises — like diverting EU-related spending to the National Health Service — will be impossible to keep and that much-ridiculed experts were right that there would be economic costs to Brexit.

One could argue that holding a vote, and fixing its result, on the basis of such imperfect information was as unfair as it would have been for Arsenal to proceed to the next stage of competition on the basis of the Overmars goal. Kanu didn’t understand the situation. The same can be said of at least some Leave voters, and some of those who stayed home.

Now, the unwritten rules of the game are much clearer, and so are the stakes.

Others, of course, have called for a repeat vote before. But while former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s voice is irrelevant, Farage’s is not. He may not have been the Arsene Wenger of the Leave side, but he was certainly an important player on that team. And, for a replay to be legitimate, the winning side should be up for it. That could provide a decent explanation of why Betfair, the U.K.-based bookmaker, cut the odds of another referendum from 10-1 to 5-1 after the Farage tweet, despite all the negative reaction. It’s still an unlikely event, but if more people on the pro-Brexit side agree with Farage that another vote would help settle the matter “for a generation,” it’s not impossible. The EU, which has never wanted Brexit, would likely grant the U.K. the necessary time to prepare and hold the vote.

Farage is counting on the kind of result that Arsenal got on the replay — a confirmation of the exit vote. The polls (which were wrong the last time, anyway) and bookmakers’ odds (which skew Remain now as they did in 2016) — show the race would be tight. Its outcome could be determined by turnout, which Farage guesses would be higher this time. But whatever happens, a repeat vote would indeed settle the matter. There would be no doubt that the U.K. public has processed enough of the relevant information as best it could — and made a considered decision.

The Football Association wasn’t afraid to set a dangerous precedent when it ruled for a replay in 1999. Nor should the U.K. government and parliament.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist.


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