Brexit ref­er­en­dums: best two out of three?

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION & COMMENTARY - Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Grow­ing Pains: The Fu­ture of Democ­racy (and Work)’. Email feed­back to [email protected]­

THE FIVE-DAY de­bate in the Bri­tish Par­lia­ment on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal with the Euro­pean Union did not start well for her. Ev­ery­body knows that she hasn’t got the votes to pass the deal, but it turned out that she hasn’t got the votes for lots of other things ei­ther.

It’s a rot­ten deal be­cause it was bound to be. The EU is 27 other coun­tries with a pop­u­la­tion seven times that of the United King­dom, so it was al­ways go­ing to have the up­per hand in ne­go­ti­a­tions. It played hard­ball in the talks be­cause it needed to demon­strate that Bri­tain would be worse off by leav­ing. Other­wise, other mem­bers might also de­cide they could cherry-pick the bits of the EU they liked and skip the rest.

So the EU coun­tries stuck to­gether, and May’s gov­ern­ment was forced to choose be­tween a ‘nodeal’ Brexit that would cause chaos in the UK and the lousy deal that the EU of­fered her in­stead. In a mo­ment of san­ity, she chose the lat­ter.

The deal leaves Bri­tain still part of the com­mon mar­ket the Brex­iters wanted to quit and still pay­ing into the EU bud­get, but no longer with any voice in the EU’s de­ci­sions. More­over, Bri­tain can only exit that half­way house with the con­sent of the EU.

That con­sent will only be forth­com­ing if May can some­how find a way to keep the border be­tween North­ern Ire­land (a part of the UK) and the Repub­lic of Ire­land (which will re­main an EU mem­ber) ‘in­vis­i­ble’. Un­til then, Bri­tain must stay in the cus­toms union.

So May’s deal leaves the UK half-in and half-out of the EU, “shack­led to a ra­di­a­tor” un­til such time as it comes up with a mag­i­cal so­lu­tion to that border co­nun­drum. May’s deal was never go­ing to make it through Par­lia­ment. Those who don’t want Brexit (at least half the mem­bers of the House of Com­mons) will vote against it, but so will the real Brex­iters, who see it as a be­trayal of their fan­tasy. And if party dis­ci­pline is go­ing to col­lapse any­way, you might as well vote for what you ac­tu­ally want.


May lost three votes in Par­lia­ment on Mon­day, which gravely un­der­mined the au­thor­ity of her gov­ern­ment. The most im­por­tant was one that took away her free­dom to de­cide what to do next if (or rather when) her deal is voted down. Now, Par­lia­ment de­cides what to do next – and it could choose a num­ber of cour­ses, in­clud­ing a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum on Brexit.

The sec­ond ref­er­en­dum has be­come the uni­corn of Bri­tish pol­i­tics, a fa­bled beast that never shows up in real life, but there are uni­corn drop­pings all over the Houses of Par­lia­ment this week. As the fan­tasies fade and re­al­ity bites, the mem­bers of House of Com­mons (of whom a ma­jor­ity al­ways sup­ported ‘Re­main’, even if many hid their views in or­der to sur­vive po­lit­i­cally) have be­come an ex­traor­di­nar­ily volatile group.

There are half a dozen pos­si­ble out­comes to the par­lia­men­tary ma­noeu­vring of this week, end­ing with the de­ci­sive vote on May’s deal next Tues­day, but sev­eral of them would prob­a­bly lead to a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum that might re­verse the Brexit vote of June 2016. And the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice’s ad­vo­cate gen­eral has just ruled that the UK could, if it wishes, just drop its ap­pli­ca­tion to leave with­out need­ing the per­mis­sion of other EU mem­bers.

It would be a re­mark­able re­sult: three years of huff­ing and puff­ing about ‘sovereignty’, fol­lowed by a meek re­sump­tion of Bri­tain’s (quite ad­van­ta­geous) po­si­tion in the EU. Of course, the an­gry Leavers would cry ‘Foul!’ and de­mand yet an­other ref­er­en­dum – ‘Best of Three’ – or they could just take to the streets.

If it should ever come to street-fight­ing, the Re­main­ers would win eas­ily. They are, on av­er­age, 13 years younger than the Brex­iters.

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