On 15th January 2019, the House of Commons rejected the deal negotiated by the government for exiting the European Union, which should come into effect on 29th March. The United Kingdom is now in a situation of deep uncertainty with not knowing how the future will look like. Will there be a soft, or hard Brexit? Can there be found an agreement on how Britain’s departure from the EU should happen?
Since a close majority of those taking part in the referendum in 2016 voted to leave, British politics have been determined by it causing deep rifts among the nation. First of all, it was a very close decision with England and Wales voted to leave, and Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar to remain. The result also caused new controversies. In Scotland, there immediately were calls for a second referendum on independence, in Northern Ireland questions concerning a united Ireland were raised again and about the future of the UK-Irish border, in London, people were even demonstrating for an independent London, and Spain claimed sovereignty over Gibraltar. The result of this referendum has brought the United Kingdom into a situation of uncertainty with a huge risk that this great country could be torn apart.
Currently, there is no majority in Parliament for any option for the future of UK’s relationship with the European Union. Some support the Chequers’ Deal, negotiated by Theresa May and which she now seeks to get through Parliament, others no deal, and others staying in the European Union. And even among the British people, there is no majority for any of these three options with the Chequers’ Deal even the most unpopular one. A poll by Survation at the end of November also demonstrated that “No deal and staying in the EU both more popular with voters than Theresa May’s agreement” with only 16% supporting it, whereas 28% are in favour of no deal, and 43% of remaining in the EU. This result is also confirmed by other polls.
Therefore, the only way out of the dilemma can only be what Justine Greening MP has already proposed, namely to hold a new referendum asking the British people again with three options: to stay in the EU, the deal negotiated by the Prime Minister, and a hard Brexit, with an alternative vote.
The argument by Theresa May, why she is carrying out Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union also is finally the most convincing argument for a second referendum. She says, she respects the will of the people and therefore, she had to start triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. However, if she really wants to respect the people’s will, then she must
also give them the chance to agree with the final deal negotiated for exiting the EU, or to change their mind.
The question must be raised if the acceptance of a referendum does always mean that you have to stick completely to its wording. The problem with referenda also is that you do not know if they only reflect a prevailing mood, or the actual opinion of the people. In the case of the referendum on UK’s membership of the European Union, the problem and the reason why it cannot be said that it reflects the will of the people is that it only gave them two possibilities to vote for, to remain, or to leave. But what is with those who wanted to remain, but in a reformed European Union, and some polls indicated that this is what the British people really wanted, but they had not chance to vote for this. If you really respect the will of the people, then you must hold a referendum in which people can really express their will and not only have the possibility to choose between two options set by politicians.
The result also caused new controversies which were neither foreseen, nor even supported by the British people. As said above, after the election new calls for a second referendum on an independent Scotland, a united Ireland and shared sovereignty over Gibraltar followed. Although the two last proposals will not succeed because of a lack of support, it might not be the case with a new referendum on Scottish independence. The Scottish Parliament has already voted for a second referendum, and it cannot be predicted how the Scottish people will react if they are no longer EU citizens. Furthermore, the British people only voted to leave the European Union, but not for other steps which are included in the Great Repeal Bill, e. g. to withdraw from the single market. The British people never voted to leave the European Economic Area (EEA), or the single market, or the customs union, but the government and Parliament have included these steps alongside others in the Great Repeal Bill. The government just implies that they support it without having got any decision by them about it. It is not known if the British people also want to end the freedom of movement for European citizens either, which is one of the freedoms of the single market, and of which British people have also taken advantage. Taken the fact that more than 48% voted to remain, and that among those who wanted to leave, there were also some who wanted nevertheless to remain in the single market, like other non-EU European countries, it is not unlikely that a majority of the British people wants to stay in it. You cannot say on the one hand, you respect the will of the people, and on the other hand, after a decision by them, you read something into it for what they have never voted. The British people taking part in the referendum in 2016 only voted to leave the European Union, but if it results in an independent Scotland (and thus a breakdown of the UK) and a withdrawal from the single market - all things which were
not part of the referendum in June 2016 - then, if you really trust and want to respect their will, you must give them the chance to finally agree on it by carrying out a second referendum.
Prime Minister Theresa May herself was originally opposed to Brexit, saying, “Remaining inside the European Union does make us more secure, it does make us more prosperous and it does make us more influential beyond our shores”. Even the government has now predicted that “Brexit will make UK worse off”, estimating that under the Chequers’ Deal the GDP will fall within 15 years after exiting the EU 3,9% and with no deal even 9,3%. If Theresa May now carries out leaving the European Union, then she only wants for Britain the second best option, but this country deserves the first best option and politicians fighting for it. Would it not be more appropriate for a Prime Minister to convince the people for the best solution instead of promoting a policy about which she originally thought, it would be less good for the British people? If she thinks staying in the European Union is the best for the British people, she must fight for it.
The government under her premiership introduced a bill triggering Article 50 which was passed by Parliament, and eventually the Prime Minister negotiated a deal with the European Union for leaving this state community. Therefore, she has already accepted the result of the referendum in 2016. And if it is now argued by the “ultra-brexiteers” that the deal negotiated by her does not reflect for what the people actually voted, and others that the opinion of the British people has now changed after getting aware of the consequences of exiting the European Union, and taken the fact that the referendum only gave the British people the possibility to choose between two options set by politicians, without any chance for those supporting the UK within a reformed EU to vote for their option, and if there is no majority for any option in Parliament, how can the government and Parliament better respect the people’s will by giving them the chance to finally express their will in a second referendum?
The next question is now: What should be the position of the Conservative Part and its leadership if a second referendum took place? The Conservative Party is as deeply divided as the entire country. This also was the reason why the party did not have an official position on Britain’s membership of the European Union in the 2016 referendum. However, originally, it was the Conservative Party supporting Britain’s involvement into Europe. Even Margaret Thatcher, who is nowadays very often used by the eurosceptics to promote their views, was a supporter of the UK joining the European Community and campaigned vigorously to remain in the 1975 referendum.
Especially the Conservatives must stand up against the “Ultra-Brexiteers”. The Conservative Party has always been the party neither being eurosceptic, nor europhil, but eurorealistic. It has always fought against two extremes, and both of them are absolutely “anti-British”. The one is affiliated very often with the left and social liberals. It is the opinion that the United Kingdom should go up in a European super state loosing its sovereignty, no longer being an independent nation, but only a part of a European super state. The other one is affiliated mostly with the extreme right, and sometimes even with the extreme left, and very often serves as a kind of a link between these two extremes. It is the promotion of isolationism based on the idea that the country is at its best when being totally isolated, because the nation is considered to be so superior that it does not need any further cooperation, and this is the ideology of the “ultra-Brexiteers”, and unfortunately, it has been overtaken by some within the Conservative Party. However, it does not belong to its essence, because it is a patriotic, not a chauvinistic party. The Conservatives strongly supported the United Kingdom’s promotion of an “enlightened patriotism”. It is the concept of loving your country without minimising others, but supporting a deep cooperation with them. Therefore, the former Prime Minister and former Conservative Party Leader Sir John Major got it right when saying, “It is time for the minority of ‘Ultra Brexiteers’ – those who believe in a complete break from Europe – to stop shouting down anyone with an opposing view. It is not only unattractive but profoundly undemocratic and totally un-British.” Because of that, the Conservative Party should not only support a second referendum, but even campaign that the British people vote to remain.
However, should staying in the EU after a possible referendum mean that British politics should go on as if the referendum in 2016 had never taken place? Definitely not! The fact that the majority of the people voted to leave the European Union, and thus expressing their dissatisfaction with it, must be taken seriously. Therefore, the United Kingdom must review its membership of the European Union. First of all, there should be a broad debate in Britain about the people’s fears, hopes and expectations regarding the EU, the competences of the European and the British institutions, and the benefits of the UK being a member of the EU. Proposals for an improvement of Britain’s relationship with the European Union could be firstly, that the UK takes care that the principle of subsidiarity, which is a general principle of European Union law becoming part of it by the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, and which was overtaken by the Treaty on European Union, is better observed. Upheld by the Treaty of Lisbon 2009, it states, “Under the principle of subsidiarity, in areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Union shall act only if and in so far as the objectives of the
proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the member states, either at central level or at regional and local level, but can rather, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved at Union level.” Upholding this principle, and thus transferring power back from Brussels to Westminster (and other national parliaments), could restore confidence not only of the British, but of all other European people. If this principle is violated, and it has unfortunately been in the past, the consequences of the UK should not be to leave the European Union, but to fight for its re-implementation. Hence, the UK could become the motor in the EU of this process and thus contribute to a better trust of the European people in the EU institutions.
Secondly, with regard to the relation between the Commonwealth and the EU, the UK should take up what the Millbrook Action Programme says, “We therefore agreed that there was scope for the association to play a greater role in the search for consensus on global issues, through: … use of formal and informal Commonwealth consultations in the wings of meetings of international institutions with a view to achieving consensus on major concerns.” To talk with other Commonwealth countries in the EU (Malta, Cyprus) prior to significant decisions could lead to a united position among these countries on important issues, and thus strengthen Britain’s position in the EU. There are some saying that Britain would await a prosperous future outside the EU in the Commonwealth, as Lord Guildford, “A bright future awaits Britain post-Brexit in the Commonwealth markets.” However, Britain’s membership of the Commonwealth should not be played off by its membership of the EU. Being a member of the European Union and of the Commonwealth of Nations is not a contradiction, but a complementarity. There are a lot of principles which these state communities have in common, and a better exchange and cooperation could be beneficial for both state communities and its members.
Thirdly, the importance of the European Union Act 2011 should be made clear, which already guarantees that in the event of alterations on the “Treaty on European Union” and the “Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union”, the British people must agree before the UK can approve them. No major change of competences within the EU can be made without the consent of the British people any longer.
And fourthly, there should be a referendum about the system how the British people should vote their MEPs. The change from the first past the post system to proportional representation resulted that the people have no longer been as closely connected to their European representatives as they had been before. If the British people can decide which democratic
process is used to elect their MEPs, it would lead to a better trust in the European Parliament, and thus the EU decision making process.
The Conservative Party should also rejoin the group of the European People’s Party in the European Party, and should revive the European Democrats as a faction within this group. By withdrawing from the EPP group, the biggest one in the European Parliament, the Conservative Party has lost a lot of influence, and hence the United Kingdom.
All these things considered, – the possible unforeseen consequences that the country could be torn apart, that the people could only vote for two options set by politicians, the fact that there is no majority for any possible option neither in Parliament, nor among the British people, proposals for transferring power back from Brussels to Westminster and thus strengthening UK’s position in Europe – the only way out of the current dilemma is to hold a second referendum to let the British people decide how their future relationship with the European Union should be.
Christian Schneider has studied Roman-Catholic theology, passed his diploma and is now proceeding to a doctorate. He is a member of the German Christian-democrats (both CDU and CSU), a member of a working group on Europe of the youth organisation of the German Christian-democrats (Junge Union) of his home state Rhineland-Palatinate, a member of Conservatives Abroad, and of the Conservative Group for Europe.