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.