Opinion | It’s time for another referendum on Brexit
With a no-deal scenario looming, a people’s vote would be a mechanism to cut through the parliamentary impasse
With less than six months to go before Britain is slated to leave the European Union (EU), the shape of its withdrawal arrangements and future relationship with Europe remain perilously unclear. As a beleaguered UK government contemplates a stalemate in Parliament, the calls are growing for a second referendum. The recent spectre of 700,000 citizens marching to Parliament Square in support of a ‘people’s vote’ have firmly brought the issue into the spotlight. It is a proposition that deserves serious consideration in the face of a looming no-deal scenario.
As a starting point, the British government’s official position was unveiled earlier in the year at Chequers, the prime minister’s country residence. Theresa May’s so-called ‘Chequers plan’ outlined a vision for the UK and the EU to maintain a “common rulebook for all goods”, including agri-food, with the UK making an upfront choice to commit by treaty to ongoing harmonization with EU rules. A crucial ingredient was a convoluted “facilitated customs arrangement” that would remove the need for customs checks and controls between the UK and the EU as if it were a combined customs territory. Chequers achieved the perverse outcome of unifying the Europeans and the hard right faction of the Tory party in vehement objection.
The proposals were spectacularly rebuffed by EU leaders at Salzburg’s September summit on the basis that they amounted to ‘cherry-picking’ and undermined the single market by not including the freedom of movement. At home, the plan triggered the heavyweight resignations of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary and David Davis as Brexit secretary on the footing that it stood to dilute the very essence of Brexit. The symbolism of Johnson’s departure as the architect of the Leavers could not be underestimated. It stoked a mood of discontent with May exposed to rebellious backbenchers.
Hardliners within the Tory party have favoured a free-trade agreement modelled on the EU-Canada template. Yet, this hasn’t received broad support in Westminster. The Canadian deal took years to negotiate and, crucially, doesn’t cover services. It was not intended to serve as a blueprint for a deeply interconnected relationship such as Britain’s. The UK government hasn’t favoured it either. Reaching a consensus on its basic parameters before March-end is thought to be illusory. At the other end of the spectrum, there are some right-wingers who would be ideologically content with a no-deal scenario because it would at least deliver Brexit. Unsurprisingly, this virulent posture doesn’t have a parliamentary majority backing it.
Moderate Tories have been utterly squeezed. They were dismissed by May in the early part of her premiership and their appeal to pragmatism has often left them isolated within their own party. Some have outlined an option modelled on Norway’s status as a member of the European Economic Area with single market membership but not EU membership. Yet, the politically toxic freedom of movement that attaches to the Norway model hasn’t produced voluble parliamentary proponents.
What about the Labour party? The principal opposition’s stance is a bundle of contradictions masquerading as a policy. Labour has supported leaving the single market and the customs union but, at the same time, has said it will back the government only if it delivers an outcome that preserves current benefits. Go figure! Jeremy Corbyn’s Euroscepticism has driven a party of largely remainers to an uncomfortable space. Given the Tory convulsions, Labour has failed to seize the advantage.
What does this all mean? Put simply, short of a last minute swerve, the odds point to a parliamentary stalemate. There is a majority against every conceivable solution but none in favour of a tangible one. Chequers has been savaged, there is little momentum for a Canada-style model, Norway hasn’t got the numbers, and so on. T.S Eliot’s maxim that “in a minute there is time and decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse” appears to have been embraced wholeheartedly in this circular farrago. Against this backdrop, with a no-deal scenario looming, a people’s vote seems to be a mechanism to cut through the parliamentary impasse. Far from being a counter-democratic manoeuvre, it would put the key structural choices to the electorate for resolution.
From a European perspective, a certain degree of schadenfreude would be understandable. Yet the truth is that the European pipedream of an ‘ever closer union’ continues to ignore a range of anxieties within member states on immigration, welfare spending and excessive centralization. Witness the rise of right-wing populism in Austria, Italy, Hungary and Germany as an example. The classic European response to such anxieties has been to pretend they do not exist. However, that can only fuel greater apathy and resentment for another day.
Turning back to Brexit, a people’s vote should be seriously considered if parliament fails to reach a consensus. Contingency planning for a vote should commence. Meanwhile, at a time where protectionism is on the rise, it remains ever more important for Britain and Europe to promote the case for free trade. Warring Tories should remember this. The onus is also on EU politicians to demonstrate ideological flexibility. Otherwise, the risks of a Brexit no-deal scenario will be much worse for everyone involved.
Rishabh Bhandari is a London-based lawyer and political commentator.
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