Let the People Decide on Brexit

Hans-Werner Sinn

Project Syndicate, March 26th, 2019.

British voters now know far more about Brexit and its possible consequences than they did at the time of the 2016 referendum. Given the narrow majority for leaving the European Union back then, and the impasse at which UK institutions find themselves now, holding a new referendum is both appropriate and necessary.

For a while, it seemed that British Prime Minister Theresa May and her government’s supporters in Parliament could decide on Brexit by themselves. Through a long series of tactical votes on all manner of trivialities, and with the alternative of a hard “no deal” Brexit hanging over MPs’ heads like the sword of Damocles, May’s government tried to manipulate the Brexit endgame. And for a long time, her approach fooled the people of the United Kingdom and Europe.

But now the tide has turned. The speaker of the UK House of Commons, John Bercow, and the other 27 European Union member states have put an end to the undignified goings-on, forcing the government and Parliament to decide.

According to the speaker’s ruling on March 18, the government cannot bring the UK’s current EU withdrawal agreement back to Parliament again with a hard Brexit as the alternative. And, although the EU has extended the original Brexit deadline of March 29, it is not willing to amend this agreement.

As a result, Parliament now has until April 12 to choose among three options. It could accept the Brexit deal currently on the table, in which case the UK would leave the EU on May 22, one day before the European Parliament elections begin. Alternatively, the UK could decide to take part in the European elections and suggest a new plan of action, such as a second referendum on EU membership. In this scenario, the EU would grant a further, lengthy extension of the Brexit deadline, to allow time to prepare for what comes next. If Parliament chooses neither of these options, it will default to the third: a hard, no-deal Brexit on April 12. 

Because May has been unable to secure any changes to the withdrawal agreement from the EU, Parliament cannot vote again between this deal and a hard Brexit if Bercow stays firm. And if the EU stands firm on the current withdrawal agreeement, the alternatives in any new parliamentary vote would have to be either an orderly Brexit under the agreement’s terms or a second referendum. And if there were a new referendum, British voters would probably have to decide between an orderly Brexit and remaining in the EU, because nobody will dare to offer a hard Brexit as an alternative.

Until recently, a reversal of British voters’ 2016 decision to leave the EU had seemed unlikely. But the interventions by Bercow and the EU have opened up a whole new game, dramatically increasing the chance that Brexit may not happen. This would foil financial-market speculators who were betting on a withdrawal, and is good news for both the UK and the EU.

Nearly three years ago, British voters did not really know what they were doing when they decided by a narrow majority to leave the EU. Few had clear ideas about what Brexit would mean, aside from some romantic notions about reviving the Commonwealth. But the situation today, after two years of negotiations on the UK’s exit agreement, is very different.

For example, the withdrawal agreement implies a customs barrier in the Irish Sea – and thus within the UK – for people, services, and capital. Only goods may pass this barrier without controls. In Northern Ireland, however, all four of the EU’s fundamental freedoms would continue to apply (with only a few exceptions): capital, services, people, and goods may move free of customs, duties, and controls.

This threatens the integrity not only of the UK, but also of Great Britain. After all, it cannot be ruled out that Scotland will hold another independence referendum in the medium term, once it realizes that Northern Ireland, which remains closely tied to the EU, got the better deal.

The British people are far better informed about Brexit and its possible consequences than they were at the time of the 2016 referendum. Given the narrow majority for Brexit back then, and the impasse at which UK institutions find themselves now, holding a new referendum is both appropriate and necessary.

For months, the British government has used the threat of a hard Brexit to play parliamentary games on an issue of huge national and European importance. This cannot continue. In a true democracy, political leaders must recognize the limits of their authority and capacity. That is why Parliament must submit to the people the decision whether to remain in the EU or accept the withdrawal agreement.

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