John Weeks – Improbable Routes to Reserving Brexit: Facing Reality

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John Weeks is one of the few Remainers, who seems capable of critical thinking with regard to Brexit and the EU. He reflects on a second referendum.

John Weeks is Professor Emeritus at SOAS, University of London, and associate of Prime Economics

We at Brave New Europe don’t take a position on Brexit. While we recognise that many dark and odious forces lay behind the Brexit vote, and that the process will inflict significant economic damage on many people, we also know that European institutions and policies typically reflect a strong neoliberal slant – and we launched this project to oppose and change this.  We have sympathy with the anger against European institutions – but we also believe in the principle of European cross-border co-operation and co-ordination in many areas.  Reflecting this complex reality, we will host both pro-Brexit and pro-Remain articles.

I campaigned vigorously for Britain to remain in the European Union, contributing to a pamphlet giving the progressive case for membership, and helped to organize a meeting addressed by Keir Starmer, now shadow Labour minister for Brexit, and Matt Rack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union.  To my dismay a majority of British voters cast ballots to leave the European Union.  As for many supporters of membership, I had no clear tactic much less strategy to respond to this shocking defeat and reverse what is universally called “Brexit”.

Now, almost two years later, a rational review, to use an American cliché, finds that the probability of reversal lies between “slim and none”.  Consider first what seems the most obvious route to reversal, the “second referendum”.  This putative reversal mechanism suffers from several flaws: parliamentary approval, specification of the question, and winning the vote on it.

A referendum requires parliamentary approval, either introduced by the government or by a “private members’ bill”.  The May government supports leaving the European Union; it is inconceivable that it would reverse its policy and support a second referendum.  Should the May government fall, its likely Tory replacement would prove even more hostile to EU membership.  Private members’ bills are so constrained by parliamentary rules that even bland ones rarely pass.  Legislation as controversial as a second referendum, certain to be opposed by the Conservative government, would have zero chance of passing.

A route to referendum suggested by many is that a pro-EU surge in public opinion would force Parliament to act.  As a practical matter this surge must manifest itself in an election that brings a pro-EU government to power.  Because of the weakness of the pro-EU position among the Conservatives, the hypothetical Remain government would come from the Labour Party.

Whether by a change in the policy of the current Labour leadership or a change in that leadership, the Labour government route to referendum faces a major obstacle, the time constraint: 1) the May government or its Tory successor will postpone a general election as long as possible; 2) the imaginary pro-Remain Labour government must pass the enabling legislation for a new vote through a possibly lengthy process; and 3) the referendum date must allow for a suitable campaigning period.  It is unlikely that these events could unfold before the now-agreed transition period ends on 31 December 2020.

The scenario so far requires several counterfactual presumptions: a surge in pro-EU public sentiment, an early general election and a reversal of Labour Party policy.  To these I now add the belief or hope of many committed Remainers that the EU leaders, faced with a pro-EU British government, will extend indefinitely the transition period.  Should all four of these events, each unlikely, come to pass, the next major problem confronts us, how to word the referendum.

The June 2016 referendum asked voters, “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”  For a very practical reason, presenting the same question a second time is not possible.  Had the June 2016 vote gone in favour of membership, the result would have been clear, the status quo affirmed.  However, today the consensus of EU governments and European commission officials is that the British government has de facto abandoned its membership.

Therefore, a second referendum would not bring a return to the membership status of 22 June 2016.  That status that included several important, carefully negotiated special conditions: 1) non-participation in the so-call Fiscal Pact that severely limits implementation of national fiscal policy; 2) exemption from the treaty commitment to adopt the euro; and 3) least important practically but of great political weight, a permanent reduction in contributions to the EU budget.

What if the referendum reads “should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union with all special conditions it had prior to 22 June 2016”? If the vote is positive, there is strong evidence that EU governments would not accept a return to the status quo ex ante.  Indeed, the pro-EU campaign could be undermined by announcements of non-acceptance from Brussels and other EU capitals.

An alternative wording that recognized the likely loss of special conditions would result in certain defeat for the second referendum.  British anti-EU campaigners could seize on the commitment to adopt the euro.  This is a commitment that many pro-EU voters, including me, strongly oppose because it locks in fiscal austerity and a likely extreme monetary policy under the next head of the European Central Bank.  Should we argue that while it may be legally binding, the commitment can be avoided in practice, we would come across to voters as duplicitous.  And should that opportunistic argument sell in Britain, it would guarantee opposition on the continent to our membership on grounds that the pro-EU arguments were not made in good faith.

A second referendum offers little hope of reversing Brexit.  To summarize,1) the present government will not enable it; 2) a change in government may come too late to enable it; 3) a Labour government under the current leadership would not legislate it; and 4) should by some combination of improbable circumstances we have a second referendum it would involve abandoning the special conditions, leading almost certainly to defeat.

As an alternative, because of the “sovereignty of Parliament” the hypothetical pro-EU Labour government could pass legislation cancelling Brexit. Simpler still, the prime minister could state that the cabinet views the June 2016 referendum as “advisory” and not binding.  The British government would declare Brexit reversed and all negotiations irrelevant.  As a German lawyer and I argued elsewhere, the EU governments would not accept this.  The disagreement over whether the British government could unilaterally reverse Brexit would go to the European Court of Justice where the outcome would be uncertain.  As uncertain as the ECJ outcome would be, it represents a greater possibility of success than a second referendum.

Those who urge a political campaign to reverse Brexit need to explain its precise tactics and the steps to reach the final goal.  Mobilizing support without clarity on tactics and strategy could result in wasted effort.  The specific issues requiring clarity are:

1) If a second referendum is the tactic, how will it be managed to maintain the special conditions on euro membership and exclusion from the Fiscal Pact?

2) If the second referendum does not include the special conditions, how will it be presented to the electorate? And

3) If the second referendum is not the tactical mechanism, what will be?

Many argue that the Labour party leadership should stay open about the possibility of retaining membership in the European Union.  To have content, that argument must explain a credible process by which a Labour government might retain membership.  Were a Labour leader to declare her/himself open to remaining an EU member, the media and the public would demand the practical steps be explained.

To urge openness to remain without specifying what measures would achieve it would not be a call for policy change.  It would be an implicit call for leadership change.



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