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Five conditions for consulting the people

Five conditions for consulting the people

Why Britain will need a new vote on the EU

by Joergen Oerstroem Moeller in Singapore

Thu 22 Sep 2016

When 50.3% of Danish voters on 2 June 1992 voted No to the Maastricht treaty on economic and monetary union, I was state secretary in the Danish foreign affairs ministry. My task was to advise the government which course to set as a result of the vote, and an agreement with the Europeans was negotiated over five months. Four Danish exemptions were approved at the European Council meeting in December 1992 (under the British European Union presidency). In a referendum in May 1993, 55.4% voted Yes to the new terms.

The lessons learned during these 12 months could prove useful to the UK, where calls to hold a second referendum on EU membership persist despite the British parliament’s dismissal on 5 September of a petition to hold a new poll.

It would be hasty to call for a new referendum soon after the 23 June vote, when my fears of a No vote were borne out. But it would be equally hasty to rule it out. In two or three years, circumstances may be so messy that a referendum could be the most democratic response to a number of unpalatable scenarios.

My idea would be that – similar to what happened in Denmark – the British people should be asked to vote on a deal for leaving the EU that will be worked out in negotiations up to 2019. Five conditions need to be fulfilled, none of them easy.

First, there must be adequate preparation and warning for a vote. The electorate will react negatively to a hasty referendum regarded as an attempt to pull the wool over their eyes.

Second, there must be a clear majority in parliament for a referendum, possibly after a new election (not easy to engineer in Britain’s now fixed-term system), and a majority among the electorate that tolerates it.

Third, parliament should forestall accusations of foul play by stating unequivocally that the course set by a referendum can be changed only by another referendum. Conveying this to the public will be hard, but it is indispensable. If this stipulation is not made, the move will be seen as betrayal, engineered by clever civil servants or smart politicians seeking to circumvent the will of the people. And it will fail.

Fourth, in the negotiations that eventually take place after Britain starts exit procedures by triggering Article 50 of the European treaty, politicians and civil servants should do their utmost – and be seen as doing so – to secure good terms for withdrawal. This would pre-empt suspicions by some Brexiteers and parts of the media that the establishment would be ready to accept ‘bad’ terms in a ploy to reverse the 23 June decision.

Fifth, the main justification for the referendum would need to be clear and transparent: to enable a decision on known withdrawal terms, which was not the case in June. It would be legitimate and reasonable to ask voters whether they wished to confirm or reverse their earlier decision. The poll would not be a ‘second referendum’ or a plea to repent, but a new consultation of the people on an eminently democratic basis.

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is Senior Research Fellow, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, and Singapore Management University, and a former State Secretary at the Danish Foreign Ministry.


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