Why a new referendum on Brexit is justified

March 24, 2019

Amidst the Brexit chaos, more than five million UK citizens and residents have now signed the petition “revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU”. The chaos is of course not unexpected.

As  Jamie Morgan and I wrote two years ago, “it remains the case that whoever is leading the Conservatives that the UK government may be unable to guarantee acceptance by Parliament of any agreed position with the EU, and that there is a further potential of government collapse”. We continued:

Agreement matters more to the UK than to the EU, and formal deadlines for domestic changes to law within the UK and for detailed negotiation with the EU are tight. Moreover, there remains basic ambiguity concerning what the UK government actually wants and what it can achieve. Differences, dichotomies and simplistic representations abound and the basic splits between soft/hard and left/right exits persist.

The original vote between “remain” and “leave” was between a known existing state of affairs and some unspecified future form, where different voters could imagine their own preferred or non-preferred exits. Nonetheless, many respectable persons have defended the sanctity of the June 2016 referendum result in the name of democracy, both on the political left and right.

The EU is infamous for overcoming negative referendum results by means of a few concessions and a new referendum. That is not a good democratic practice and should be avoided also in this case. But the problem is that the form of Brexit was unspecified in June 2016. As shown in Table 1, at least four very different Brexits lay on the table.

Table 1: Four possible British exits from the EU

SoftA. Retain close ties to the EU, especially in terms of free movement of labour/people and human and social rights.B. Retain close ties to the EU especially in terms of the single market in goods, services and capital.
HardC. Use the regained autonomy to rebuild democratic welfare state in the UK independently of the neoliberal regulations and policies of Brussels.D. Use the regained autonomy to exploit maximally the UK possibilities for benefitting from tax and competitiveness war against other states.

In summer 2017, Jamie and I continued our analysis by arguing that “if no agreement is reached by the deadline, EU Treaties will no longer apply to the UK”. This would be a fifth form of Brexit, which very few have been advocating. A no deal Brexit would mean the continuation of radical uncertainty and involve the possibility of catastrophic consequences to the UK. On the other hand, as has now been corroborated, it could also mean no Brexit after all, followed by negotiations about the precise terms of renewed British membership and a new referendum in the UK.

The British government has indeed been wrong-footed at every turn. The correct procedure for Brexit should be symmetrical to the accession process. First either a referendum or parliament should decide whether to initiate negotiations about a possible exit. Once some kind of an agreement is reached, it should be subjected to a referendum. On this basis, it now seems clear that there should be a second referendum in the UK.

Let me finally mention a further problem, although it may not be relevant in the context of Brexit. Either joining or leaving the EU is in many ways more sweeping a decision than most constitutional changes. This raises the question of whether a simple majority should be sufficient for a change either way.

Clearly this question must be analysed and discussed thoroughly, and it goes without saying that it has implications for sub-state secessionist efforts as well. Yet it is hard to see why EU membership would amount to less than a constitutional change. There is at least a prima facie case for thinking that a decision of this magnitude should require a qualified majority.

The threshold could be for instance 60 per cent, or perhaps, say, 57%. Wherever the threshold should lie, it should be acknowledged at the same time that many, if not most, of the issues of the EU Treaty should be opened up to normal democratic politics. The EU should become less constitutional and more open to revision and democratic change.

Heikki Patomäki