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12 reasons not to panic about Brexit – and why we probably won't leave the EU after all

The idea of ‘one vote, one time’ belongs in the Robert Mugabe political playbook, not the British democractic system of flexible constitutionalism

Denis MacShane
Tuesday 09 August 2016 15:45
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A woman waves an EU flag at Stonehenge on the longest day of the year
A woman waves an EU flag at Stonehenge on the longest day of the year

For Remain voters, it’s been a difficult summer. Worry no more; here are 12 reasons why the vote to leave the EU doesn’t mean we’ll actually be departing the union after all.

1. Calls for a second referendum now, like calls for second front in 1942 or 1943, are premature. Prime Minister May’s incantation “Brexit means Brexit” sounds good, but it is devoid of meaning.

2. The referendum was not a legal or constitutionally binding instruction that overrides Parliamentary supremacy. MPs would be foolish to set themselves against the referendum outcome in the aftermath of the 23 June decision to leave the EU, but in the course of 2017, and by 2018, both public opinion and the nature of the EU may have changed.

3. Every decision to change the order of things in a democracy is open to challenge. From Edmund Burke to Margaret Thatcher, the doctrine of parliamentary representative democracy has reigned supreme over plebiscitory populism.

The idea of ‘one vote, one time’ forever belongs in the Robert Mugabe political playbook, not evolutionary British flexible constitutionalism.

4. The duty of Her Majesty’s Opposition (although apparently not the Labour Party right now) is to oppose. Someone has to speak for young, the Scots, London and modern cities as well as the four million people who signed a parliamentary e-petition calling for debate on second referendum. In fact, 63 per cent of the UK registered electorate did not vote for Brexit.

5. Opposition politics works by losing a vote, accepting new rulers, and then fighting to challenge and change that new order. There is now broad agreement that the Leave campaign was based on the “Big Lie”: that 75 million Turks were to arrive in Britain; that £350m could be spent on the NHS outside the EU; that the EU was about to create a European Army – take your pick. A vote based on lies or significant distortion of the facts is still valid but has less moral authority than one based on truth.

6. Much will depend on the economic consequences of Brexit though alas the UK has no Keynes to write the book. But if recession sets in, unemployment rises, the pound slumps, the Scots itch for independence then the mood will change. In explaining British policy on the eve of World War the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey said any deal needed to ‘receive the whole-hearted support of public opinion here.” If public opinion moves against Brexit the plebiscite vote will no longer be valid.

7. Much now depends on the ability of the Three Musketeers of Brexit – Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox, all devout Eurosceptics since the 1990s – to deliver an acceptable deal. If the most they can offer is ‘Norway minus’ – staying in the EEA to have single market access but accepting free movement, EU laws, and financial contribution to the EU, plus ECJ supremacy – many will ask, why not stay in the EU?

8. There needs to be early clarity from Paris, Berlin and Brussels on whether or not all £100trn worth of euro trades and clearing can stay in London once the UK is outside the EU. Confusing and contradictory statements from EU commissioners encourage complacency in the London press that the City really won’t face any financial loss if Brexit is consummated. That may not be the case, and UK citizens need to understand the true implications of the decision to leave.

9. No one wants to be rude, but EU leaders may be doing Theresa May a disservice by not being frank and clear that the UK will lose access to the single market by leaving the EU. While trade in goods continues under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, the service sector exports in which Britain does well in Europe, and which are not covered by the WTO, are not going to survive a full Brexit.

10. Brits need to understand that Article 50 negotiations only cover a small number of issues, such as who pays for the pensions of UK MEPs and other Brits working for the EU who will be dismissed, and the transfer of the European Medicines Agency and European Banking Authority from London.

The other issues – devising a visa and work permit scheme, for example – will take many years of talks to conclude, and will only get under way once Article 50 talks are over and the UK plays no part in the EU. That could be 2019 at the earliest, before the start of the next Commission cycle 2019-2024. Spain has just signed a trade deal with China to export plums; it took eight years to conclude. There is no chance of a ‘quick Brexit’.

Theresa May says she has an 'open mind' over Brexit negotiations

11. Inside Britain, those who reject this latter-day isolationism need to come together. The political class, in the form of the parties in Parliament, are not up to the task. MPs who lied about Brexit or who have reduced the Labour Party to a laughing stock can hardly inspire or lead.

From somewhere outside must come organisation, finance and spokespersons able to articulate British public opinion if it decides that the vote on 23 June was a wrong decision.

12. That said, elected MPs having surrendered their right and duty to guide and lead the nation by giving in to the Ukip demand for a plebiscite, now need help to recover their belief in representative democracy. Britain needs a Winston Churchill, but it has only a Boris Johnson.

Europe can also help by showing a willingness to reform and close the disconnect between the people and Brussels. Brexit either leads to a renaissance in Europe and Britain coming back inside, or it is merely the first step in the winding up of the EU.

Denis MacShane was the UK’s former Minister for Europe and is the author of ‘Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe’

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