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No Choice and No Exit for the UK

The outcome of the simple binary choice given to UK voters in the June 2016 Brexit referendum has proved almost impossible to implement. The main obstacle is not the complications of negotiating new treaties, but rather the judgment by those in charge of Britain’s political life that the costs of an emphatic withdrawal are too great.

LONDON – The United Kingdom’s protracted attempt to leave the European Union has upended the two illusions by which the world has lived since the end of the Cold War: national sovereignty and economic integration, the twin end points of history, according to Francis Fukuyama’s celebrated 1989 essay.

Juridically, the world consists of 191 sovereign states, which freely enter into treaties, agreements, and associations to order their relations with one another. The UK is one of them. Its failure to make a meaningful exit from the EU would be the first time in modern history that a major sovereign state was forced to remain in a voluntary union because, while legally free to leave, doing so would be too costly.

Coercion must be understood as a continuum of pressure, ranging from the use of force at one end to mild economic and cultural sanctions at the other, with a country’s sovereignty measured by its vulnerability to the various forms of compulsion to which it can be subjected.

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