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An anti-Brexit demonstrator stands outside the venue of the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham. Photo: Reuters
An anti-Brexit demonstrator stands outside the venue of the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham. Photo: Reuters

Opinion | Second Brexit referendum: a double-edged sword?

Both sides, Leavers and Remainers, feel betrayed. Even though Brexit was meant to restore its sovereignty, Parliament has no real say in a process that will mark Britain for decades to come

As deadlines approach and red lines are redrawn in the UK’s impending withdrawal from the European Union, it is imperative for the people of Britain to regain democratic control over a process that is opaque and ludicrously irrational. The question is: How? Democracy can never aspire to being more than a work in progress. Decisions made collectively must constantly be reappraised collectively in the light of new evidence.

Both sides, Leavers and Remainers, feel betrayed. Even though Brexit was meant to restore its sovereignty, Parliament has no real say in a process that will mark Britain for decades to come. The Scots and the Northern Irish are hostages to a distinctly English feud that could do them serious damage. The young feel the old have hijacked their future, while the old feel that their accumulated wisdom and legitimate concerns are being ignored by insiders striking bad deals behind closed doors owing to vested interests. In short, British democracy is failing its latest and most stringent test.

But a fresh referendum cannot be the answer to the disaster triggered by the original referendum. In June 2016, a stark choice was available to the people of Britain: leave the EU or stay in. While one can question the wisdom of making such a collective choice via a referendum, the logical coherence of the enterprise was beyond dispute.

Once the verdict came in, and the process stipulated by the Treaty of Lisbon’s Article 50 was set in motion, no binary yes-or-no choice to steer Britain out of its mess became available. In fact, there are now at least five options that must be collectively appraised.

Boris Johnson and his merry No-Deal Brexiteers are campaigning for Britain to sail away from the EU and, once outside, seek a relationship with the EU similar to that which Canada struck recently. Prime Minister Theresa May is sticking to her chequers strategy of pushing the EU to accept a relationship that simulates membership but leaves the UK degrees of freedom that the European authorities are adamant not to grant. The Labour Party is proposing that the UK remain within a customs union with the EU but not within the single market. Another proposal, would have the UK leave the EU but remain in both a customs union and the single market for a five-year period that can be renewed by mutual consent. Finally, there is of course the aspiration to remain fully within the EU.

Any democratic reappraisal of the decision to leave the EU must involve these options, among others. It must also expose the contradictions of the leading proposals. For example, a people’s vote must be informed about the implications of the “Irish backstop" that May has already agreed with the EU on (guaranteeing there will be no border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland). In particular, Canada-style solutions are inconsistent with both a successful divorce settlement and keeping Northern Ireland in a customs union with the rest of the UK.

Alas, referenda are not designed to sift through five distinct alternatives and to separate the logical repercussions of each from wishful thinking. Even if a preferential voting mechanism were to be employed, with voters ranking their preferences from one to five on the ballot paper, the process of successive elimination of the less-preferred options would be mechanical on the day of the referendum, ruling out any debate between rounds of elimination.

A second referendum poses a second threat to democracy. Since the 1970s, when neoliberalism began shrinking, the realm of democratic decision-making transferred all important political choices to financial institutions and unelected “independent" authorities (like central banks). People have since rightly felt that voting is a mere ritualistic validation of decisions taken by an establishment beyond their control. The Brexit referendum was a rare exception. The large turnout signified a high-water mark in participation, with more than 17 million voting — many for the first time in their lives— against the wishes of all the main establishment institutions.

In my view, it is utterly regrettable that the people decided to rediscover their power by supporting Brexit. Those of us who opposed Brexit cannot support a second referendum that, in essence, tells these people: “You made the wrong decision. Now go back and deliver the ‘correct’ verdict." If we do, we will confirm their suspicion that democracy is respected only when they are disrespected. The only beneficiaries will be Boris Johnson and his ilk, who want the silent majority to remain silent, reactionary, and distraught while they rule. So, if a second referendum is not the way for the British people to regain control of the Brexit process, what is?

The answer, as called for by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, is an immediate general election, to be fought on all of the relevant issues at once, and presenting the various alternatives in full. The people’s next vote on Brexit must concern not only their preferred exit path but, crucially, the mix of domestic economic, social, and institutional reform policies that go with it.

We all have a duty to spell out our proposals precisely. In the interest of revitalizing democracy and ending the toxicity of the current Brexit process, DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe Movement 2025) and I will be backing the UK’s inclusion in the single market and a customs union with the EU for a renewable five-year period. During that period, implementing the Labour Party’s sensible manifesto would mitigate the damage inflicted on the peoples of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland by the financialized casino capitalism of successive Tory and New Labour governments.
©2018/project syndicate

Yanis Varoufakis, a former finance minister of Greece.

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