By Nathan Weavers
Brexit. The idea in early 2016 that seemed impossible is now a daily echo which reminds us of the uncertain period that Britain is currently in. Since the surprising result of the referendum was announced, the seemingly simple idea of the UK withdrawing its membership from the European Union seems to encapsulate far too many problems which has seen some recent opinion polls suggesting that the people are beginning to change their mind. The issue of the Irish border; the desire to remain or leave the Single Market and the common buzzword of immigration are just a few of the problems that wrap themselves around the enigma of withdrawing membership and there is still a year to go.
There is no fixed, off-the-shelf method to leave the European Union because no state has ever done it before. It seems like every week either Theresa May, Boris Johnson or David Davis is flying to Brussels to meet with EU officials with little to no progress actually being made on the talks. The public is very confused with what is actually going on, yet the Prime Minister is often quick to reassure the public that the Government is taking care of it. The problem is that Brexit is a very complex idea. While the referendum simply asked people if they wanted to remain or leave, it is far more suitable to imagine the issue as a spectrum of opinions. For example, some ‘Brexiteers’ may wish to cut all ties with the EU while others are satisfied with paying the divorce bill so long as some form of economic integration with the EU is maintained. It is for this reason that some sort of consensus must be agreed upon.
The Government seems to have three options when they finalise their Brexit deal with the EU. They can call for a final vote in Parliament to either reject or accept the agreement; they can call upon the public to go to the polls yet again to give their consent on the bill or they can ask the public to simply accept what Theresa May and her ministers have produced. Each option has its own problems, but some do seem more favourable than others. The most pressing issue is selecting an option that is appeals to both ‘Remainers’ and ‘Brexiteers’.
The most likely option is that MPs will be given a vote on the deal just like every other piece of legislation. This, of course, can only be done once Theresa May has finalised her deal with the EU but the constitutional principle of representative democracy does suggest that MPs should be the ones to provide the Prime Minister with a mandate to leave. This method does raise the issue that the pro-Brexit, minority stronghold within the Conservative Party could get the better of May and MPs could be faced with a final deal which very few would actively support. The likes of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg have created a minority in the Conservative Party which favours a very hard version of Brexit meaning that the Prime Minister has often compromised during negotiations to keep her party members satisfied.
Furthermore, this is the same Conservative Party that proposed the referendum initially; the same one that sought a larger majority in the 2017 General Election and the one that is currently handling Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. It is for this reason that a vote in Parliament could be seen as pointless as Tory MPs are likely to vote for the withdrawal deal no matter what. However, the Prime Minister would also have to please the Democratic Unionist Party after failing to form a majority government last year.
The main advantage of this method is that amendments could be made to the bill just like they can with other pieces of legislation. The Brexit bill would undergo the intense process of scrutiny where the Labour Party could intervene should they be dissatisfied with the deal. This would result in a compromise in beliefs which would satisfy and represent the beliefs of the public that voted to leave the EU in the first place. Although the process would be messy, as any amendments made to the bill would have to be okayed by the EU, it is arguably the best option for Theresa May should she wish to please her government and the public to keep her own approval ratings up. Arguably, this will also suit all actors involved as they could all have their say.
The UK’s second option is to go to the polls yet again. This form of direct democracy would give the Prime Minister the clearest mandate to leave the EU as the public would be able to approve the deal. The main issue with this method is that the kind of vote that this would be is unclear. A referendum would have to pose a question with a binary decision, which would most likely be a yes or no vote. If a majority of people support the deal, then the Prime Minister can go ahead with withdrawing membership but if the majority of voters disapprove of the deal, then what? Does the Prime Minister amend her deal and then call another referendum? This process could go on indefinitely which is why this method seems unlikely. Furthermore, this option will yet again not please everyone. We would see another dissatisfied minority suggesting that this method of trying to reach a consensus in unlikely to suit everybody.
A vote similar to a general election could be staged instead of a referendum however. This could pose the various options that the Prime Minister has agreed to and could even include an option to remain a member of the EU. Without going into detail on the various electoral systems that could be used for the decision, this method would give an indication on which option the public favours but would most likely see the majority of voters not being in favour of the decision that is reached. Purely due to the lack of clarity, the use of this method is very unlikely.
The third option is that the public and Parliament just have to accept the deal that Theresa May is negotiating. Having no form of approval on the deal seems unlikely but the public arguably do it every day when they trust their MPs to vote to represent the constituency’s views. However, MPs would be dissatisfied with this option so may pressure the Government to put this to a vote in Parliament. Because the UK has never faced a situation like this though, there is no set guideline for how the Prime Minister should deal with the issue. After Gina Miller’s pressure for the triggering of Article 50 to be put to Parliament, it is likely that Theresa May would allow a vote on the final deal in Parliament to avoid a similar situation from occurring. The British public are rightfully keen on holding the Government to account so a vote in Parliament does seem the most plausible option on this matter.
Brexit is unique. As previously mentioned, there is no set way for dealing with the final deal and so Theresa May faces a difficult decision on how to deal with it – both at the negotiating table and back on home soil. Tony Blair has stated multiple times that it is not too late to reverse the initial decision made by the public in 2016 and, while this is true, it seems very unlikely that the decision to leave the European Union with will overturned. Mutterings of a repetition of the 2016 Referendum have been thrown around in the media but again, this seems unlikely as one referendum could potentially cancel out the other. A simple parliamentary vote is most likely to happen just to ensure that the usual process of scrutiny is attached to leaving the EU. Any further referenda on the issue is likely to cause unrest and even an apathetic public who may want the whole thing to be over and done with. It is unlikely that the public would oppose to Parliament being the institution that agrees to the final Brexit deal as it is used for every other piece of legislation. The sensitivity of the issue could make some voices louder than others though which is why Parliament must balance the views effectively. Overall, a parliamentary process similar to that of an ordinary legislative one is most likely to suit both those who voted for and against withdrawing from the EU as it will be able to balance a plethora of views effectively. However, as the decision to leave the EU has shown, anything can happen.