Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The Moral Imperative of a Second EU Referendum

There is no such place or political space as ‘being outside’, or ‘being without’ defined, agreed international relations with other countries, particularly one’s neighbours. You either have them or you are not a functioning state in the world trade, financial, movement of people, energy, security, etc., systems. To that extent, ‘exiting’ or ‘leaving’ the EU is a terribly misleading term. It’s a bit like saying ‘leaving society’. You simply can’t exist as a functioning human being without a substantial amount of co-ordination with the other human beings around you. You can’t ‘leave’ society therefore, you can only renegotiate and perhaps change the way you interact with others within it. Some people might have thought they were voting to ‘leave’ the EU on June 23rd, but what they were actually voting for was an undetermined ‘change’ to the UK's formal relationships with the EU and the rest of the world.

Now, it might have been possible to define in some detail what the UK’s vision for that change was in advance of the referendum. The Scottish Government did it before the Scottish independence referendum for example. The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolution settlements were all defined in legislation before their respective referenda. The European Economic Community was a living, breathing entity when the UK voted to continue its membership in 1975.

The official ‘leave’ campaign could have done the same in June 2016. It could have defined the UK’s future membership of this organisation here, and its non-membership of that one there; this change to immigration policy here, that change to trading terms there; this co-operation to continue here, that one to end there. It might have been comprehensive, or it might have been illustrative. It would have been ‘draft’ only of course, as all new relationships need to be agreed by all parties, as unilateral, self-interested actions rarely result in long-term stability or success (even the most powerful of super-states understands that). But it might have been a start, and it would have given its supporters a degree of authority to say on June 24th, ‘Brexit means […], and the British people support it’. But that didn’t happen. Nothing was defined, not even informally. The referendum mandate was therefore for ‘change’, but what on earth too?

Were our relationships, arrangements and rules of engagement with the rest of the world of little consequence, it might be reasonable to just allow the UK Government to crack on now, define this brave new world, renegotiate something with all parties, set up new systems, and move on. But they are not inconsequential; no, quite the opposite I’d argue. They are existential, even constitutive perhaps. Our formal international agreements define what it means ‘to be the UK in the world’ just as much as societal rules define what it means to be an individual in society. They will affect everything from how we do business in the world, where we trade and on what terms, the shape and size of our economy, how we educate ourselves at university, conduct research, go on holiday, receive emergency treatment abroad, pick grapes in Italy before going to college, get married to someone from Poland, etc., etc., literally et bloody cetera, ad infinitum. We know how we do all those things now. Brexit means that we don’t know how we will do them in the future.

It could be that the scope of change is quite limited in the end of course (angering hard brexiteers) and our lives remain pretty much as they are now. It could be enormous (angering remainers and soft brexiteers) and our lives change in incalculable ways. It could be that a fair majority of UK citizens believe the change to be acceptable and desirable in the final analysis. It could be that a fair majority think it is not. We just don’t know yet, and can’t know until a proposal is put forward and a negotiated, agreed package arrived at with our international partners. It is fair, I believe, to say that we did agree to reject the current definition of ‘us’, but we have no idea what the new ‘us’ is going to be, and who can put their hand on their heart and say that we’ve agreed ‘to be it’ yet?

When people say there is a mandate for Brexit, what they mean is there is a mandate for change. And as a remainer I’d agree with that. The UK Government is entitled (and even obliged) to set out a new vision for the UK’s place in the world and negotiate its particulars with the international community.* It does not have a mandate to press the start button and put that vision into practice however. In what parallel moral universe, for example, would it be right that a government could claim, ‘you said we could do something, so we’re changing everything’?

It should surely be inconceivable to any democrat, therefore, that unknown changes of such potential enormity could be imposed on the citizens of the UK without a second referendum. Brexiteers within and outside the Government will no doubt dismiss and scoff at the idea, but it will not go away. In the absence of a pre-referendum blueprint for ‘Brexit’, it is morally imperative to seek the British people’s endorsement of the final proposal. If David Davis is so confident of building his new British Shangri-La somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, I would have thought he’d relish the opportunity of celebrating its establishment with the roaring approval of the people, wouldn’t he?

*I respect the different mandate given by the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland and they and their political representatives are entitled to determine their own positions vis-à-vis the EU either within the UK or outside it. The Welsh Government has a permanent and continuous obligation to protect the Welsh national interest within its areas of competence and to lobby and negotiate on its behalf outside of them. I would expect them to do this vigorously in respect of the post-Brexit landscape. The people of Wales have a permanent and continuous right to change the nature of their relationship with the UK (and other countries) should they choose democratically to do so. The EU referendum result in Wales in June does not change that in any way.


  1. "The people of Wales have a permanent and continuous right to change the nature of their relationship with the UK (and other countries) should they choose emocratically to do so. The EU referendum result in Wales in June does not change that in any way".

    You're right phil of course it doesnt change Wales right to full self government, but if hopes for welsh self government are bound up with full membership of the EU we have to accept that goal became that little bit harder after june 23rd. Personally i support the motion Adam Price tabled in the Senedd this week on membership of the single market but i think we have to accept it's not going to be easy in the future trying to persuade the tens of thousands who voted for brexit in places like the south wales valleys of the case for freedom of movement (freedom of movement being a key condition of EU and single market membership).

    Of course if life outside the EU will be as wonderful as the brexiteers have been telling us there is no reason why a self governing wales shouldnt enjoy the benefits of the economic nirvana which is apparently to be found outside the EU.

  2. I wasn't really commenting here on how much harder or easier the case for Welsh independence is following UK exit from the EU (the institution) or the Single Market (the customs union, free trade area). That's for another day. But I do acknowledge that new 'difficulties' will be raised by opponents when those things happen. Rather, I was just stating for clarity that the EU referendum result has no bearing on the right of the Welsh people to have that debate and 'leave' the UK in the future should they wish to ('back' to the EU in full, as a member of the EEA, as a standalone state, or whatever).

    My argument in this post is that I don't think the UK Govt has a mandate to simply choose the 'alternative international status of the UK (its model of international cooperation)' carte blanche without reference to the people again. There is no defined binary opposite to 'leaving the EU (institution)' which can be taken as agreed to by the British people in June. And so to execute one choice in particular without recourse to a referendum or general election is to impose something without electoral mandate.

    Their mandate is to 'leave'. Fine. Draw up the possible alternatives of 'leaving' (and I accept that means excluding the 'stay' status quo option), and let the people decide which one they want (they are very, very different).

    If they don't do that, the legitimacy of the new model will be compromised for generations. Someone will always be able to say...'we never voted for this'. Because we didn't. We affirmed a negative, not a positive.

  3. And as I said in the post, it is not enough to say, 'you told us to do SOMETHING, so you must accept ANYTHING we give you'. That is technically possible in our constitution, but it is morally defective and is unsustainable in the long-term.