Britain's PM Theresa May. (AFP)
Britain's PM Theresa May. (AFP)

Opinion | Another referendum could break the Brexit impasse

Britain will now leave the EU on 31 October unless it comes up with a path acceptable to Europeans

Spring might have come but a frosty atmosphere continues in Westminster. Nearly three years after voters decided to leave the European Union (EU), the shape of its arrangements and future relationship with Europe remains perilously hazy. The latest delay to 31 October provides a temporary reprieve from a cliff-edge exit, but considerable work lies ahead.

As an embattled UK government faces up to a continued stalemate in Parliament, the need for flexible thinking has never been greater. Hard choices have to be confronted, including ultimately a people’s vote as a last resort.

Frankly, many were hoping for an extended delay of about a year to allow Britain some time to work through the muddle. The fact that the extension turned out to be shorter owes much to the frustration felt in Europe—particularly expressed by French President Emmanuel Macron—that the continued Brexit psychodrama stands to hamper EU priorities. At a time when the EU needs to focus on budgetary reform, parliamentary elections, security matters, tariff discord with the US and much else, the uncertainty over Brexit has been a monumental drain.

As things stand, Britain will leave the EU on 31 October unless it comes up with an alternative path that is acceptable to Europeans. It will also have to participate in EU parliamentary elections scheduled next month. If Britain were to pass Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal, it could leave earlier than October, but that seems a tall order.

The truth is that May’s deal is all but dead. After two historic parliamentary defeats, she lost a third vote in March by an appreciable margin. The real irony in all of this is that an exercise in “taking back control" from the EU has turned out to be dependent on it.

Meanwhile, Parliament has explored a series of alternative options twice already with no majority found for anything. The prime minister’s controversial late approach to the Labour party to reach a mutually agreed solution has borne no fruit yet. It has left the bulk of the Tory party seething at the legitimization of Jeremy Corbyn. That said, with May sticking to her entrenched position during the cross-party dialogue, nothing of substance has emerged.

How did we get here? In large part, the prime minister has been the architect of her misfortune. Granted that she was dealt a tough hand but she has played it terribly. First, she chose to pander to the right-wing elements of her party. The concerns of remainers were patronisingly brushed off as the latte-sipping metropolitan views of “citizens of nowhere". Rather than building a cross-party coalition on Brexit, she preferred an ultra-narrow sectional lens. She fatuously declared that “no deal is better than a bad one", even though events have charted a different path.

Second, she gambled on a general election in 2017 and ended up losing her majority. The dependency on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was thus established. From that moment, the erosion of her authority became irreversible.

Various proposals have been put forward. Hardliners within the Tory party have favoured a free-trade agreement modelled on the EU-Canadian template. Yet this doesn’t cover services. It was not intended to serve as a blueprint for a deeply interconnected relationship such as Britain’s. At the other end of the spectrum, there are some right-wingers who would be content with a no-deal scenario. Unsurprisingly, this position doesn’t have a parliamentary majority.

Moderate Tories have been utterly squeezed. Some outlined an option modelled on Norway’s status as a member of the European Economic Area with single market membership but not European Union 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 then? The principal opposition’s stance is incoherent at best and obfuscation at worst. Labour has opposed the government’s deal without outlining any meaningful alternative. It has danced around the question of a public vote even though a majority of its members support it. Corbyn’s Euroscepticism has boxed a party of largely remainers into an appalling corner.

Where does this take us then? Put simply, short of a last-minute swerve, the odds still point to a parliamentary stalemate over the coming months. The prospect of May reaching a solution with Corbyn is fairly slim. Moreover, the clamour for May’s resignation is only likely to rise. Given this level of uncertainty, a general election cannot be discounted. Yet, a general election alone would not resolve the underlying issue.

Increasingly, it would seem that a second referendum may be required to cut through the impasse. Moreover, if Parliament were to find a solution, that too should be subject to a confirmatory public vote with credible “leave" and “remain" options. Far from being a counter-democratic machination, it would put the structural choices to the electorate for resolution.

In the days ahead, the onus is on British politicians to utilize this brief delay in the national interest. The stakes could not be higher. An effort that falls short, resulting in an eventual no-deal scenario with harsh consequences for the least well-off, would be unforgivable.

Rishabh Bhandari is a London-based lawyer and political commentator.

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