People’s Vote: A view from Europe

As the government’s Brexit deal founders, calls for a People’s Vote on Brexit grow ever louder. But what is the view from Europe? Philippe Lamberts, Co-Chair of the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance in the European Parliament and member of the Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group, gives his take.

European flags in a line
The European flag
Philippe Lamberts
Wed 21 Nov 2018

Since the day after the decision of the British people to vote to leave the EU, I stated that the only way of democratically proceeding with the withdrawal process would be to give the British people a final say on the outcome of that process.

The results of the referendum on UK membership of the EU in June 2016 – 52 per cent in favour of leaving the EU versus 48 per cent in favour of remaining – indicated a majority in favour of leaving, but with no qualification.

As we have come to see, there are many flavours of Brexit. The only way to know the kind of Brexit acceptable to the British people is for the British Government to negotiate a deal in good faith, and then take that deal back to the people.

However, we now have limited time before the Article 50 deadline. The British Government has wasted precious time; negotiations did not begin until March 2017 and then faced disruption due to the general election in May 2017. Meanwhile, power struggles in the Conservative Party – and divisions in the Labour Party – increase the risk of any eventual deal being voted down in the UK Parliament and make the risk of a ‘no deal’ situation bigger.

On top of that you have the red lines that the British Government has set upon itself that limit room for manoeuvre. The EU wants to avoid a ‘no deal’ Brexit, but we are not willing to make the concessions demanded by Theresa May to help her keep her majority and get a deal through Parliament at the expense of the cohesion of the Single Market. It is not worth the price.

If you really want control, the best option is membership. While it’s not Britain dictating, Britain has a place at the table

The EU is certain of what it wants. When Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier speaks, he enjoys the whole-hearted support of the vast majority of the European Parliament; as a staunch supporter of parliamentary democracy he engages with the European Parliament on an equal footing to that of the Commission and the Council. He knows that, at the end of the day, the European Parliament needs to ratify any agreed deal, so instead of cooking something up and then coming at the last minute with a cooked treaty hoping for a yes answer, he has involved us from day one.

On the UK’s side, it is a question of putting country above party. I see so many people putting themselves and party above country that you can never rule out that individual power calculations will result in no majority for a withdrawal agreement – and therefore a hard Brexit.

Some have said an option could be to reject the agreed deal and go back to the EU. On the one hand, I don’t think this can happen because of the red lines the British Government has imposed on itself. On the other, if a different government were to come back and say it would be happy to stay in the Single Market and the Customs Union, that would make Britain a vassal state. As a democrat I would never support such an option. It is for citizens to choose whether they want their laws written in Brussels. If you really want control, the best option is membership. While it’s not Britain dictating, Britain has a place at the table. That gives you control.

Now, whether a deal is agreed or not, the British people should be given the final say. The problem is, I do not know how a People’s Vote can materialise currently, as it must be legislated for. There is also the issue of what questions would be put on the ballot? Do you put A, accept the deal on offer, B, refuse the deal and exit the European Union without one, and C, remain in the EU? You can refuse a deal both because you want a ‘no deal’ Brexit and because you want to remain in the EU.

Another issue is that if a People’s Vote were to be legislated now, are we so sure that a majority of British citizens want to remain? It is very tricky; if you put all your eggs in the basket of a last-minute People’s Vote, but the People’s Vote doesn’t materialise and a deal has been rejected by Parliament on this basis, or a People’s Vote does happen and a majority want Brexit, you get a ‘hard Brexit’. That is a very heavy price to pay; if you have a ‘no deal’ Brexit, that would sour the relationship between the UK and the EU27 for a very long time. That to me is a real gamble.

Britain belongs at the heart of Europe and the British people deserve the opportunity to change their mind

An alternative strategy, therefore, and one that I have voiced a few times in the British and Irish media, is if Theresa May brings back a sensible deal that includes the Northern Irish backstop and includes the transition period, which at this point would be at least 33 months, Parliament should vote for it to avoid the cliff edge of a hard Brexit.

That allows the Remain camp to build up pressure and momentum. During the transition, the UK would legally be a third member state and out of the EU. However, if the Remain camp is able to build momentum and obtain a majority in the House of Commons for a referendum, and that referendum returns a majority in favour of the EU, the EU27 cannot politically refuse the UK’s will to return to the fold. It would still be a quasi-member state – applying EU legislation, contributing to the EU budget, accepting the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, accepting the four freedoms.

This would not be totally straightforward; there would have to be a negotiation on the UK’s budget rebate and the opt-outs, but I wouldn’t say the UK has a weak hand in that negotiation given its significant contributions to the EU, not just in monetary terms but in security and economic terms as well.

This second scenario would be a difficult equation for Remain-supporting politicians, because it would entail continuing to campaign for a referendum after having voted for a withdrawal agreement.

That said, Britain belongs at the heart of Europe and the British people deserve the opportunity to change their mind, as the alternative of a hard Brexit would be hugely damaging for everyone.

Philippe Lamberts is Co-Chair of the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance in the European Parliament and member of the Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group.

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