When will the British public be allowed to speak again on Europe?

Alexander Phillips challenges Wales’ political leaders to make their case for why the public should be included or excluded from having a say on Britain’s future relationship with Europe.

The Christmas break will mark six months since 17.4 million Brits voted to Leave the European Union – 1.3 million more than voted to Remain. How the other 30.6 million feel about the whole thing remains unknown. The closeness of this result has added to the Brexit chaos dominating British politics.

With half a year gone – minus some scribbles taken from a long lens – we’re no closer to knowing what Brexit actually means than we were before the referendum campaigns began. The referendum question failed to provide clarity on what terms the UK Government should acquiesce from our EU neighbours. A conundrum which could easily cost that Government the next general election.

But while this process goes on the closeness of the result has fuelled calls from some quarters for another referendum. If held quickly, it would be the third time in under 50 years that the public have been asked to decide upon the principles of our relationship with Europe.

This highlights that the great weakness of referendums is their inability to provide a lasting democratic mandate. Something of a flaw within any democratic nation which relies on the fundamental principle that the public have the right to change their minds. A point which begs the question of when, and in what form, the democratic process should be allowed to continue?

Over the last six months I’ve asked this question to as many people on both sides of the debate as possible. Thus far I’ve had a variety of responses from Remainers, but all Leavers I’ve asked have been silent.

In response I want to again challenge them to tell us whether, and in what form, they will support the continuation of the democratic process on our relationship with Europe?

To ease this path a number of options have been outlined below. Several of which, for better or worse, allow for the exercise of greater democratic control by the public than we have seen thus far:

The first is the post-deal referendum. This is when the UK public will be allowed to directly support or reject the specific outcomes of the Article 50 negotiations before they are ratified. This would be complex and give the public a lot more direct influence than ever before. However, were the public to will it, we know that the Article 50 process can be suspended indefinitely with the support of all other member states.

Next is the post-deal general election. Rather than a bespoke referendum, this scenario delivers a full general election to be held ahead of the mandated May 2020 fixed-term deadline. Political parties would then be able to put forward their vision for Britain’s future relationship, and the result will provide them with a genuine mandate to deliver it. Presumably this could be anything from the hardest of hard post-Brexit relationships to the pausing of leaving altogether.

Third, assuming the Article 50 process is ratified without a role for the public, and Brexit is delivered (something which may not happen immediately given the possibility that the final deal could deliver a distant leave date such as 2024 through transitional arrangements), there could be a full-blown third referendum – this time on re-entry.

Fourth, in a fully post-Brexit world we have a political party winning a general election with a manifesto commitment to re-enter the EU in whatever form we then find it – given how dynamic and open to reform European institutions have been over the last half century it’s hard to imagine the current format remaining unchanged. Instead it’s highly likely that it will continue to change in ways no one has yet conceived of. By the same measure it could fall apart completely. Only time will tell.

There are endless further options and variations on these and the Supreme Court ruling has the potential to change all of them. Nonetheless, this blog has not been about ignoring the result of the vote. It has not been about calling for a third referendum on our relationship with Europe. And it has not been about preventing Brexit. Careful readers will note that all options assume that the process continues, and two assume that the Brexit process is fully completed before the public speak again.

Instead it has been a challenge to leaders on all sides – especially those who have been silent – to outline whether they support the continuation of our democratic processes on our relationship with Europe? Do they take the position that now the public have had a say they should never be allowed to comment again? Do they feel it’s inappropriate for the public to ever have a direct say on Britain’s international relationships? If not, are they willing to be specific about under what circumstances they are willing to go to the public again?

There are at least 64.1 million of us that will judge their answers. I’ll leave it to them to make their cases.

@AlexLeoPhillips is a Public Affairs & Relations Consultant in Cardiff Bay. He writes in a personal capacity.

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