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.