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.

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

  1. We waited 40 years for a 2nd referendum on Europe, the first one being based on false assumptions about going into a Common Market. Perhaps in another 40 years…

    As for the relationship with Europe, any sensible negotiator will not show their hand to the other side before entering into those negotiations, much less do it in public.

  2. Alexander, it is certainly unusual to find silent ‘Leavers’! Perhaps you to not know that many. However, here is one prepared to give a direct answer to your question…

    It is in the nature of referenda that they can only answer questions of broad principle and representative democracy is necessary to work out the details. The broad principle having been decided on 23 June, it now falls to our elected representatives to work out the details in the usual way.

    Any deal or – more likely deals – will in any case have to go to Parliament as usual, especially if they require legislation. There is no mystery about this. It is a constitutional requirement.

    It is unlikely that any major party will contest the next General Election on the basis of a commitment to rejoin the EU, except, of course, for the Liberals, who are most unlikely to win. The Prime Minister is therefore correct in her conclusion that a General Election at this stage is unlikely to produce a clear mandate to do anything other than implement her party’s manifesto commitment and would therefore be superfluous.

    Of course, circumstances might change and a new mandate might then become desirable, but, given recent history, it would be unwise to proceed on the assumption that the EU will, belatedly, see the light and reform.

  3. Leaving the Union was what most voters wanted – though by which of the many possible routes, they neglected to mention. One of the suggestions you make is to, sensibly, move ahead under transitional arrangements, allowing existing trade and regulation to continue, providing improved economic stability. This allows for the promoters of the petty parochial Third Empire* to blow their froth and let a more measured discourse emerge. We would, therefore, continue to obtain all the benefits of the Single Market, whilst – importantly – acknowledging the heartfelt and undeniable cry for change that came from the largest block of those in the UK who were allowed to vote.

    Leaving Europe, on the other hand, is complete fantasy, which the Leavers know, and counts for their continuing silence. The world cracked in 2008, and the storms continue unabated as China lurches and the USA becomes unbalanced and unpredictable. Steady as she goes gets you nowhere. There is no alternative for Europe but to sink or swim together and we remain, in whatever from, an integral part. The recalibration of the relationship between the rest of the Union and the UK (and the soon to be established Dominions of which it will then be constituted) is probably part of a necessary process by the Union of reacting to the changing pull of the political riptides that surface increasingly.

    European we remain, inescapably, and in need of working out a new practical, effective, harmonious polity that copes with the continuing extreme conditions. We do it together and we do it constructively. We become better communities. We care. We share.

    The other path leads to war.

    *[The First Empire was the Elizabethan piratical expansion across the seas; the Second Empire was the Victorian mugging of captive markets and producers; the Third Empire is an imaginary golden age (lasting around a thousand years) upon which we are about to embark as we “take back control”, though, so far, without those brown shirts].

  4. If you read the diaries of Lord Donoghue who served both Wilson and Callaghan when Prime Ministers it is clear that the Labour governments were only interested in the ‘trade’ issues,and not any reduction in sovereignty of the UK Parliament. We were told a ‘pack of lies’ in 1975 and that’s why myself and many other voters voted to stay in the EEC after a fig leaf of a ‘negociation’ of amended terms by Harold Wilson.In the 40 years there has been continual loss of ‘sovereignty’ to Brussels and consequent loss of power at Westminster which is still the central Parliament of the UK and for which all power in reality still resides.It is not seemingly accepted by welsh ‘elites’ that the ordinary plebs (like myself) voted by a majority to ‘get OUT’,and our so called leader didn’t carry his own constituence,i.e. Bridgend.We have voted and OUR government will carry out the process of disengagement when they wish,but clearly within the legal framework.It looks like the whole EU ‘project’ is coming to an end as the centralisers in Brussels have tried to destroy the nation states,however the bothersome people have had enough.

  5. That, Colin, is nonsense. The public has had a say at every general election for four decades.

    And as for being misled, the Brexit campaign was the most dishonest political exercise in living memory in Britain.

  6. Well done to Colin as the only person to give an answer.


    To respond on leaves I can confirm i know and have asked many. I event sent them this blog direct. Still no response. Indeed your ‘direct response’ completely fails to answer the question put.

  7. Alexander, your question was ‘whether and in what form those who voted to leave support the continuation of the democratic process relating to Europe’?

    The answer given was ‘through representative democracy in the usual way.’

    Is that really so hard to understand?

  8. Dr Chris Smith

    ‘The public has had a say at every general election for four decades. ‘

    About just leaving or staying in the EU? I would suggest that is also complete nonsense. It will be interesting to see whether Brexit gets overtaking by events in Europe over which we have no control.

  9. @John

    So is the usual way a general election or a referendum in your view. Don’t be shy, answer the question.

  10. Alexander, your question has already been answered: the usual way is the election of representatives to Parliament every few years …as we have been doing for centuries.

    Of course, you know this. As a public affairs consultant, you must be aware of how the British constitution works.

    So what exactly do you want here?

    Are you actually calling for an immediate General Election? The reason why this would be a meaningless exercise at this stage was given in the first comment.

    Or are you calling for a second referendum? If so, on what? As was pointed out earlier, referenda are suitable only for broad questions of principle. The broad question of our membership of the EU has already been answered – we are leaving. So what would be the question in the second referendum? There is none at the moment.

    Indeed, those hard core ‘Remainers’ who are calling for a second referendum – not saying you are one of them – have failed to think through their position very carefully. Leaving aside the irony of people who opposed the referendum, and are still saying what a bad thing it was, calling for another, it is hardly in their own political interests to have one if their objective is to retain close ties to the EU. Just think it through. The only possible question in a further referendum, or further referenda, after leaving the EU, would be whether to approve any subsequent deal or deals with the EU. Giving the public the right of veto over any such deal or deals with the EU is something that might appeal to hard core ‘Brexiteers’ who want no special links at all with Europe but offer no advantage to those in favour of such links. They would be better off leaving the approval of such deals to Parliament alone in the usual way, since Parliament is more likely to be sympathetic, as well as being in a better position to scrutinise in detail.

    So if you are one of those who wants a close relationship with the EU after we leave, it might be in your own political best interests not to mention referenda for a while.

  11. Great John, three responses to say a general election. Better than most. You see simply saying the normal way or usual isn’t a good answer on this given the variety of things which would constituent the usual or normal due to our lack of a formal written constitution. We have had 2 referendums and about a dozen general elections over this period within Europe after all. Indeed deciding via a general election would be a break from the usual way as you put it given the multiple referendum evidence, hence why your comments haven’t made much sense – if you know the workings of the state of course.

    As made clear in the blog all i am calling for is for the leaders who campaigned to ‘take back control’ to make it clear when they are willing to give that control to the people. Something they remain unwilling to explain Personally I would agree that another referendum would be a bad choice due to their clear ineffectiveness. Brexiters complained about the 70s one being ineffective for decades.

  12. Alexander, with respect, it is you who is not making much sense. You agree that another referendum would be a bad idea – which actually puts you ahead of most hard-line ‘Remainers’ – but you also seem to be saying that the normal method of general elections is inadequate for this purpose.

    There should be no difficulty is understanding exactly what most who voted ‘Leave’ wanted: Parliamentary Sovereignty was a major issue in the campaign. That is what we want and we are going to get.

    The workings of the State in this country are beautifully simple, or at least they were and hopefully will be again: the people have their say by voting for elected representatives at periodic intervals. What is so hard about this?

  13. This blog has aged very well. It’s sad how little progress there has been in the last 18 months.

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