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Six Months After Brexit

December 21, 2016

in Opinion

Originally posted as a Facebook comment. Edited and updated for clarity.

Six months on from Brexit, the debate is still raging over what we should do now. As the government continues to fight a court case to force it to pass Parliamentary legislation to invoke Article 50, many people who voted Remain have been accusing people who voted Leave of undermining democracy. And I’m sure some are.

But not me. I am completely fine with any deal being scrutinised and voted on by Parliament. I have, however, also come to the conclusion that there’s no benefit in holding a second referendum on the terms of the deal. There’s no question of major constitutional importance over which there is bipartisan support on both sides that need to be put to the people, and there’s nothing to be gained from either result – a No vote would simply cause us to crash out of the EU with no deal at all, because there’ll be no renegotiation at that point, and a Yes vote would be marred by ‘burn it all down’ populists taking advantage of the fact that it’s somewhat evident from the ensuing public conversation that a significant chunk of the electorate don’t know what the single market is, and I don’t think it adds to our democratic deposit to ask people to cast votes on something a lot of them aren’t aware exist. At least everyone knows that the European Union is there. Negotiating the actual terms of a deal is something best left to our elected representatives, I think.

I said way back in June on my blog that I considered it inconceivable that the Powers That Be in the UK would allow us to leave the single market, or hard Brexit. I wasn’t expecting Theresa May to say that that was her starting point, which has given everyone pause for thought, but the backlash has been pretty much exactly as I predicted in that blogpost – the SNP has predicated a second independence referendum on hard Brexit, the Welsh and Northern Irish and Gibraltar have made it clear the chaos that would ensue if that were a possibility, the banks and business sector are having quiet words with relevant people in their pockets and those people are listening.

So I don’t know if Theresa May is seriously contemplating leaving the single market (as she’s kept as her Chancellor a man who obviously wants us to stay and is taking on all comers in Cabinet meetings) or if this is a negotiating tactic, but I think it rather clear that forces are gathering that are completely beyond her control. There is a majority in the House who support single market membership and if the Supreme Court case rules, as it should, that Parliament has a right to be involved in negotiations, then all this talk of hard Brexit is over – we can try and negotiate a bespoke deal and if we run out of time, we maintain our current membership of the EEA (which is in the interests of both us and all the European industries which trade with us). Done. Simple. What Theresa May will do is unpredictable but the situation we’s gotten herself into has enough MPs on both sides to be able to trigger a leadership election in her party.

Now, as I love democracy so much, let’s talk democracy in the EU and the ‘imaginary’ idea of a political union. The Walloon Parliament voted against CETA in November on the basis of their concern about the ISDS provisions contained with in it. That’s an issue on which *hundreds of millions* of Europeans have been campaigning, including as part of TTIP. Was the reaction of the European Union’s elites to say, ‘we seem to have underestimated the strength of opposition amongst the peoples of the EU to this deal, perhaps we should amend some of its terms?’ Was it heck. They worked out how to force the Walloon Parliament to agree wholesale.

In the meantime, multiple EU members are now increasingly holding popular referenda as a means of trying to get an overbearing EU off their back and defending their national interests. Greece obviously voted against the terms of their bailout last year, the Dutch have just voted against the EU-Ukraine agreement (though I believe this was constitutionally required). Last month, Hungary held a referendum, its first, in which its population voted *96%*-4% against accepting their quote of Syrian refugees.

So, if one zooms out of one’s parochial view of British politics to a wider European overview, the system cannot stand as it is for much longer, of which the British EU referendum is only the most dramatic manifestation so far. While from an anti-EU perspective I can shake my little fist and shout hurrah when the elected representatives of 3.5 million people scuttle international trade deals seven years in the making, from a governance perspective it’s an impossible situation. As the EU encroaches further and further on people’s lives in a real financial and regulatory way, it’s starting to meet resistance. And that’s not fear-mongering or dark mutterings, that’s actually what is happening and I do not necessarily consider that to be a good thing, whether its popular resistance against accepting refugee quotas or the Laval judgement against trade unionism – the EU cannot sustain itself as a supernational body that is largely free of any democratic accountability and oversight while simultaneously taking decisions that have more of a real world effect than just deciding how many prongs my plugs should have. They either have to retreat to a much less expansionist trading bloc that pays a lot more attention to the wants and needs of its constituent members, or they’ll have to federate. I would have been happy with a trading bloc, but that’s not the way things are going, and there is no indication that they are going to go any differently in the future. There was no slate for me to vote for in 2009 or 2014 in the European elections from a party that stood for a trading bloc without further political powers or reversing the work done so far, and if there was no slate to provide opposition to that concept than the federalists do not have to justify themselves and democratic process suffers.

As a final point, people from America or Canada or other countries that disapprove of Brexit and think that we’re stupid for voting to leave – oh, right, yeah, they’re the other side of the world and know jack about European politics or constitutional settlements. I don’t judge the state of Brazil’s affairs by what France think of them, I won’t judge Europe and Brexit by what Canadians think. When I sit down with Europeans and they find out I voted Leave and ask why, and I talk about democracy and national sovereignty and Juncker and the EU constitution, even when they disagree with me they admit it’s a rational argument.

A Brexit survey by CNN in December found that nearly everyone who voted Leave did so even though they believed it would hurt them financially and if another referendum were held they would vote Leave again. Maybe we weren’t all suckered into believing sketchy claims about the NHS.

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It is often argued by people who wish to remain part of the European Union that the fears expressed by people who wish to leave because they fear a federalised United States of Europe are just fear-mongering and there is no substance to it. What few federalists exist, they argue, they have little voice and little influence to effect their goals.

Guy Verhofstadt MEP, leader of Association of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, the liberal grouping in the European Parliament, delivered in the European Parliament on the 28th June, five days after the European referendum, a speech reacting to the Brexit vote, calling for a European state.

I have written out the full transcription below, and you can watch the video here.

He spends a minute bashing the Brexit politicians and their campaign and then lays into the European Council for their poverty of vision in not seizing the political moment and pushing towards that state. Then he announces plans for his grouping, your grouping, to develop documents this year, in how to realise that vision.

Now I find that all very worrying, but you know what? I’ll never have to worry about Britain joining the Euro or forming a European Army again, because whatever happens with our membership of the single market, that stuff is off the table once and for all.

Guy Verhofstadt MEP

Guy Verhofstadt MEP

“The only thing I have heard from the Council is that we shouldn’t change anything and we should just implement existing policies. I find this shocking and I find it so irresponsible. I don’t think you understand what is happening. It’s not only a Brexit referendum. Before that it was the referendum in Denmark: negative. There was the referendum on the Ukraine agreement in the Netherlands: negative. Now in the UK: What are you waiting for? For the next referendum in France? The next referendum in Italy, maybe?

When will the Council recognise that this type of European Union, of today, you cannot defend it anymore, and that Europe needs to be re-formed; and in my own opinion, a new vision and new project needs to be presented to the citizens of Europe, because the truth is that the citizens of Europe are not against Europe, they are against *this* Europe.

And the proof of that, Mr. President is the Eurobarometer and I am asking myself why the Commission and Parliament have not published this much earlier. It’s from a few weeks ago, in April, and you know what the results are?

82% want more European action on the fight against terrorism.

77% of European citizens want more European action in the fight against unemployment.

75% of European citizens want more European action in the fight against tax fraud.

74% are asking for more European action on the issue of migration.

On 14 of the 15 questions put to the European citizens in this Eurobarometer, a few weeks ago, people are asking for more European action, not less European action.

The problem is that Europe has become, what? Europe, our Europe has become an expert in legislation on the exact measure and colour of packets of cigarettes. We have become experts in deciding the amount of flushing water in toilets, and the level of subsidies that local football clubs can receive from a local government.

But what European citizens want and this is what the Eurobarometer tells us, is that they want;

* a European border and coast guard
* a European asylum and immigration policy to tackle the migration crisis
* to have a European capacity for intelligence to tackle terrorism
* to have a European government to defend the Euro
* to have a European army to defend the borders and contain conflicts in our neighbourhood

That is what the citizens are asking. That is what they are asking. Here.

The problem is, the inconvenient truth, or rather, I should say, the convenient lie, is that more of the same will not get us out of this crisis, dear colleagues. That is burying our heads in the sand. People want you to work on another Europe, a Europe that delivers results. And by not doing that, what you are doing is sleepwalking towards a disaster. Towards 27 other referendums, in the near future.

So let’s not be naive: the real problem, and Mr Patella is right when he is mentioning Schengen, is intergovernmentalism.

A loose confederation of nation states based on unanimity cannot work.

That is the reality of today, that you don’t recognise, until now.

And I will conclude with that, Mr. President, we’re going to do our homework. Parliament will be ready in October with a global plan based on [unintelligible] reports of the way forward. And we will not talk, be sure, about federalism, integration, deepening, widening, coordination, implementation, and all these other buzzwords that are in the centre of our discussions.

We’re simply going to go back to the ideas of our founding fathers. That is what we have to do.

And it is a [unintelligible] challenge. Now or never.

Our union will change, Mr. Tusk, or it will die. That is what is at stake.”

(6) EP Plenary session: Conclusions of the European Council meeting of 28 and 29 June 2016 – Council and Commission statements. Round of political group speakers. Guy VERHOFSTADT (ALDE, BE) + bluecard (10:01 – 10:09)

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