PARIS — In this “silly season,” when real news takes a summer holiday, two wrong ideas are vying for the attention of Britons bored stiff by the interminable feuding of their political class over future relations with the European Union.
One is that the U.K. can afford and should prepare for a “no-deal” Brexit, crashing out of the EU next March without a withdrawal agreement. The other is that Brexit can still be averted by holding a second referendum, dubbed a “Peoples Vote” to avoid the impression that citizens are being invited to resit a failed exam and get the answer right next time.
Both illusions need to be punctured in order to limit the damage from the U.K.s departure from the EU next year, which a majority of voters decided in a fateful but legitimate plebiscite two years ago.
The idea of a no-deal Brexit is peddled by the same snake-oil salesmen who hoodwinked voters into believing that their sceptered isles would flow with milk, honey and extra cash for the National Health Service if only they cast off the shackles of Brussels and “took back control.”
The false remedy of a new public vote is being plugged by the people who failed to convince the electorate in 2016 of the positive benefits of EU membership and now hope the prospect of imminent economic dislocation will change hearts and minds.
Conservative Brexiteers are using warnings of a no-deal outcome in the misguided hope that threatening suicide will give the U.K. leverage in the final phase of withdrawal negotiations
Almost no politician is reckless enough to openly advocate leaving the EU without arrangements covering financial obligations, trade, citizens rights or the Irish border. Such a “cliff-edge” Brexit — vehemently opposed by business — would cause mayhem at Channel ports, paralyze cross-border industrial supply chains and leave gaping holes on U.K. supermarket shelves.
Instead, Conservative Brexiteers are using warnings of a no-deal outcome in the misguided hope that threatening suicide will give the U.K. leverage in the final phase of withdrawal negotiations. Or they are deploying it to deflect the blame for their own scandalous lack of a Brexit plan and to shirk association with unpalatable compromises.
Having failed to secure either have-your-cake-and-eat-it exit terms or the promised stupendous trade deals with the United States or anyone else, demagogues like International Trade Secretary Liam Fox are wheeling out the old scapegoat of European Commission and French “inflexibility” to dodge their responsibility for a potential disaster.
Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who resigned from the cabinet to distance himself from Prime Minister Theresa Mays compromise proposal for close future ties with the EU, has blamed everyone but himself for the fact that his glorious Brexit “dream is dying.”
Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson | Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
This pantomime Churchill — with all the bluster but none of the acumen of his wartime hero — is trying to pin the odium for turning proud Britain into a “colony” of the EU on May, whom he hopes to succeed, but perhaps only after she has done the dirty deed of agreeing a withdrawal deal.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the most intransigent Brexit faction in Mays Conservative Party, has said the prime ministers proposal to continue abiding by EU rules on goods and agriculture in order to retain smooth market access would turn the U.K. into “a vassal state.”
These merchants of illusion, and their hardline cheerleaders in the pro-Brexit media, propound a notion of absolute national sovereignty stuck in the 19th century that wilfully ignores the realities of interdependence and global governance in the age of globalization.
They know that a no-deal departure would be an economic train wreck, notably for their partys donors in finance and business. Their game is to get the U.K. out the EU door without a U-turn and without their own fingerprints on a humiliating compromise that diminishes rather than increases British sovereignty.
So why not have another vote and avoid the whole ghastly mess, as supporters of a “Peoples Vote” — including many of my friends — advocate?
There are many reasons why a second referendum is a dumb bright idea.
First, its too late. Supposing the withdrawal negotiations are concluded on schedule in October (December seems more likely), parliament would have to deliberate on the outcome and enact a referendum law, allowing time for campaigning and a plebiscite before the U.K.s membership in the EU expires on March 29, 2019 — all amid a barrage of predictable filibustering by Brexiteers. There simply isnt enough time.
Only when the twin delusions of “no deal” and “Peoples Vote” are removed can the country face up to the reality.
Second, neither major political party supports a fresh public vote, since the issue is deeply divisive on both sides and no one wants to be seen to be going against the will of the people expressed in the 2016 referendum.
Third: What would the question be? Would voters face another in/out choice, just the alternative between leaving with a deal or without one, or a multiple-choice ballot with the options of supporting withdrawal on the terms negotiated by the government, rejecting the agreement and leaving without a deal, or remaining in the EU?
Referendums are best suited to binary choices — Yes/No, Leave/Remain — rather than an à la carte menu. Britain has never held a multiple-choice plebiscite, although there are precedents in Switzerland and Sweden. It would raise the question of whether electors should be given a single vote or allowed to list their preferences in a transferable vote system.
Fourth, there is no guarantee that EU partners, who have been put through the wringer by Brexit, would agree unanimously to stop the clock if voters rejected the withdrawal agreement. Nor can it be taken for granted that they would let the U.K. stay in the bloc on the semi-detached membership terms that previous governments secured: permanently outside the euro, outside the Schengen area of open-border travel and opting out of selected parts of police and judicial cooperation.
Britain has never held a multiple-choice plebiscite | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Many Continental governments, even traditional allies such as the Dutch, are sick and tired of Brexit and fear concessions to London will only embolden their domestic populist opponents.
Above all, a “Peoples Vote” would not solve Britains EU divide any more than David Camerons misjudged referendum did in 2016. It would merely pile new accusations of lies, fear-mongering and betrayal on the longest-running tribal feud since the Wars of the Roses.
Brexiteers would forever proclaim that the will of the people had been thwarted by traitors, or that Brussels had once again forced a member state to vote again until it gave the right answer. The anti-EU media would howl that Brexit had been stabbed in the back.
Imagine the 2016 margin were reversed and Britons voted 52-48 percent to remain. How would that lay the issue to rest or give any government the authority for a fresh start in Europe?
Only when the twin delusions of “no deal” and “Peoples Vote” are removed can the country face up to the reality: The U.K. is leaving the EU, with the loss of influence that entails, but it will have to continue applying EU rules and respecting its courts jurisprudence in order to preserve close economic ties.
It will be more sovereign on paper and less so in practice.
Call it “Brexiternity” — a slow-motion non-separation that may involve an extended transition, long-term bridging arrangements or other diplomatic fig leaves.
Paul Taylor, contributing editor at POLITICO, writes the Europe At Large column.