Having rejected the only Brexit deal available, again, the idea that the UK government is capable of reaching a satisfactory outcome regarding the British electorate’s decision in July 2016 to leave the EU is laughable. The only solution is to return to the people for a second referendum, writes Michael John Williams (New York University) – offering voters a choice between Theresa May’s deal and no deal.
Another referendum cannot be a re-do of the July 2016 vote. No, that will do no good – the past cannot and should not be redone. The referendum must be on whether the UK should leave the EU with the deal negotiated by Theresa May or a no-deal ‘hard Brexit’. To allow the current situation to endure will only tear the UK apart at the seams. Britain has already lost must prestige and respect as a result of this debacle – it is time for the voters, not Parliament, to bring to a conclusion the process they began in the summer of 2016.
May’s gamble of running down the clock portends ruin. The Brexiteers have shown time and time again that they are willing to see through a hard Brexit. And whilst they continue to argue that a hard Brexit will be just fine, the news points to an alarming reality that a hard Brexit will not be good for Britain (yes, yes, it won’t be good for the EU either, but such logic is the UK cutting off its nose to spite its face). The looming storm of a hard Brexit is already damaging the UK – just look at Sony’s recent decision to move their European HQ to Amsterdam and concern amongst auto manufactures that Brexit is yet another hurdle for a slowing industry. That said, HMG simply cannot stop Brexit: such a move wreaks of elitism and it will widen the rift between the people and the government, threatening to hollow out what little faith is left in the political system. It will also allow the Brexiteers to continue to propagate the fantasy that Brexit – even a no deal Brexit – would have been so much better than staying in the EU.
It would be nice if Parliament could settle this issue, but this will not happen. Parliament has lost the ability to govern. Fractured internal party politics dominate the right, and the left is driven by domestic electoral ambitions. Jeremy Corbyn’s recent (tentative) U-turn will not alleviate the problem. And a new general election won’t fix it either. General elections are about a raft of issues, not just Brexit and it remains to be seen that the public would be willing to elect Labour, led by Mr. Corbyn, in the hopes of averting Brexit, whilst ushering in a new era of renationalisation. In fact, polling demonstrates that the majority of the UK electorate does not trust Corbyn to get a good Brexit deal for the UK if he were Prime Minister. Theresa May’s decision to try and achieve Brexit along party lines failed, and there is not enough time build a cross party consensus. If Parliament chooses to delay Brexit simply to continue the folly of the current process, politics will remain fractious and the public strong opposes a long delay. The sentiment that ‘delay means no Brexit will dominate’. Britain will remain crippled, focused on this five-star circus of its own making, rather than a raft of other, pressing challenges.
Putting the question back to the people is the only option. But it cannot be the same question as in 2016.
There is no indication that a second referendum posing another in or out question will settle the division in the country. Britons remain more or less evenly divided about Brexit as they were in 2016 so a “do-over” of the first vote will not clarify matters. This opaqueness could have been prevented with the requirement that the original vote require a 2/3 majority on such an issue of importance. This is because a 52-48 vote is not a mandate, it’s a whisker. There is a reason, for example, that the US Constitution requires that 3/4 of the states (38 of 50) to ratify any amendment to the Constitution – with such a majority the ‘will’ of the people is clear, a mandate is evident. Furthermore, there is good reason to worry that second referendum on the same question may so irritate voters making the leave vote larger than in 2016. In fact, a majority of the public (60 percent) in recent polling a second EU referendum would “betray leave voters’ wishes.” This questions assumes, however, the second referendum is an “in or out” question like the first. UK voters are almost evenly split as to whether the country should leave without a deal or apply for an extension of Article 50 given the second parliamentary rebuke of May’s negotiated deal.
The question for the 2019 referendum is easy one for Britons to understand – deal or no deal? Should Britain leave along the terms outlined in the Brexit deal negotiated by May, or should the UK leave with no deal as espoused by the hardliners? This is a clear question based on an agreement that exists and one that will not be bettered by further negotiations – the EU has been resolute in their position, it is astounding that British parliamentarians and Tory columnists fail to grasp that no better deal will be had. The UK has the weakest hand and the EU cannot better the deal on offer if it hopes to maintain the Union after Britain’s departure. This keeps the power with the people and respects the first referendum. Furthermore, polling shows the May’s deal will most likely pass a public vote. If UK politicians truly believe that the Parliament should respect the will of the people, then this is the only way forward.
The debate in this new referendum will be be centered on fact, not fantasy and the decision truly will be the ‘will of the people’ as opposed to the will of Westminster party politics. The UK should immediately ask for a one-year extension of Article 50, moving the exit date back to 29 March 2020. The EU should agree, economic calamity can be averted and a truly democratic process will take place. The referendum should be held within six months, leaving an additional six months for the UK and EU to proper for an orderly Brexit, regardless of the outcome.
This agreement will not make everyone happy, but such is the nature of compromise. It will, however, move the debate from the realm of fantasy to facts. It will put the power in the hands of the people, not the politicians who have proven them so unworthy of the task.
Dr Michael John Williams is Clinical Professor of International Relations and Director of the International Relations Program at New York University. He is the author of “Special relationships in flux: Brexit and the future of the US-EU and US-UK relationships” with Tim Oliver published in International Affairs and Science, Law and Liberalism in the American Way of War, co-authored with Stephanie Carvin (Cambridge University Press, 2015).