Done Right, Referendums Educate. Done Wrong, They’re Brexit

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Also See: Post-Brexit Breakup Details and Boris, Britain's Undiplomatic Top Diplomat

The Swiss say they’re the key to political stability. But Switzerland is a small, wealthy Alpine nation that has been doing direct democracy — the system of government that gives citizens a large say in the legislative process, including through referendums — for centuries.

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Photo: By Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
The iconic Big Ben clock tower stands at the north end of Westminster Palace in London.

For Britain, one referendum led to unprecedented political instability, casting an unflattering light on the dangers of democracy unleashed.

On June 23, over 17 million British citizens voted to sever the United Kingdom from the European Union, plunging the U.K. into the unknown. The stunning “Brexit” result prompted a litany of questions: What happens next? How soon will Britain invoke the so-called Article 50 of the EU’s governing treaty and formally trigger the two-year divorce proceedings with the bloc? Can the U.K. still reap the economic rewards of the EU’s single-market access, without paying the price of free movement of people? Will London continue to serve as a financial hub or will businesses flock to other EU cities? Will pro-EU Scotland and Northern Ireland break off, further diminishing Britain’s prestige on the world stage?

As leaders of the “Leave” campaign promptly backtracked on some of their lofty promises — apparently Britain’s national health care system won’t be getting that 350 million pounds a week in EU funds — and regret began to seep in about the historic decision, millions of Brits immediately began asking another question: Can we have a do-over?

After a Machiavellian political tussle that saw former London Mayor Boris Johnson usurped (also see sidebar), Theresa May stepped in to become Britain’s second female prime minister. Jittery investors seemed somewhat reassured that May, a steady, tough political operative, might quell Britain’s political turmoil. But while the respected former home secretary has said she will take her time negotiating with the EU to get Britain the best exit deal possible, she’s also made it clear that there’s no going back. “Brexit means Brexit,” May said, vowing to respect the will of British voters.

Meanwhile, Swiss voters wrote the referendum system into their constitution in 1865. Between the mid-1800s and the early 1990s, Switzerland held 398 nationwide referendums, covering every sphere of government activity, according to Canadian Parliament member David Kilgour, who wrote about the issue in 1994.

There have been many more since then, including one in 2014 in which the Swiss narrowly voted to impose quotas on immigrants entering the Alpine nation from the European Union. This was seen as a slap in the face to the principle of free movement of people that is dear to the 28-member (now 27) bloc. Unchecked immigration from the EU — and the right-wing populist anger it has stirred — is also one of the main reasons why the Brexit vote went the way it did.

Negotiations between the Swiss and the EU were in their second year when Brexit happened. But after the U.K. voted to leave the EU, Brussels doubled down and told the Swiss that if they limit the free movement of people, they will lose access to the EU single market.

Like the Swiss, Brits want to have their EU cake and eat it too. A majority of Britons — 66 percent — want the government to make continued access to the world’s largest common market a priority when it eventually begins talks to leave the EU. Yet 31 percent want restrictions on freedom of movement to top the list of negotiating items, according to a poll conducted for BBC News by the ComRes research company.

Britain, however, is unlikely to get special treatment from Brussels, which fears other EU member states might demand similar perks, undermining the concept of the economic union.

Shaky Reality and Bendy Bananas

Many experts point out that Britain’s anti-immigrant fervor is driven by a shaky grip on reality. A poll conducted by the Ipsos MORI group in the U.K. before the Brexit referendum showed that Britons who intended to vote “leave” thought 20 percent of the U.K.’s population of 64 million people are EU immigrants, while the average “remain” voter thought the number was around 10 percent, according to the Ipsos poll, which interviewed 1,083 respondents over 11 days in April and May this year.

The correct figure for EU-born people living in the U.K. is, in fact, 5 percent, according to Ipsos MORI.

Other things that Brits got wrong about EU membership: Four in 10 people in the U.K. thought that 13 percent to 30 percent of national child benefits were paid to EU residents, when the correct figure is 0.3 percent, according to Ipsos MORI.

Voters also misjudged how much the EU spends on administration. “The average guess is that 27 percent of the overall budget is spent on staff, admin and maintenance costs, when in reality it’s 6 percent,” Ipsos MORI wrote.

Similarly, a quarter of people in the U.K. thought their country was the top contributor to the EU budget. In truth, Germany (23 percent) paid in more than twice as much as the U.K. (11 percent), while France (16 percent) and Italy (12 percent) also contributed more to the EU budget in 2014 than the U.K. did.

Finally, voters underestimated how much other EU countries invest in the U.K. The average estimate by people polled was that other EU countries are responsible for around 30 percent of total investment into the U.K. The actual figure is 48 percent.

One final, more bizarre myth bandied about ahead of the vote: The EU regulates how bendy bananas imported to the bloc can be. This myth was perpetuated by Boris Johnson, Britain’s new foreign minister, as he led the Leave camp. The only merit to Johnson’s claim that Brussels bans bendy bananas is its alliterative quality. The European Commission did standardize rules regarding bananas that had been drawn up in a confusing manner by individual governments and the industry. One of the EU rules was that bananas should not have malformations or an abnormal curvature. But no bananas were banned.

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Photo: Eigenes Werk / © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA-4.0
Storm clouds on the horizon? Westminster Palace, which houses Britain's Parliament, is seen from the dome of London's Methodist Central Hall.

“Many of us are still very shaky on fundamental aspects of our relationship with the EU,” Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute Managing Director Bobby Duffy said.

Anand Menon, a professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College in London, said the “high levels of ignorance about the EU” were troubling but not surprising, “given the lack of accurate information provided to the public, as well as the mistruths, exaggerations and scaremongering” in tabloid headlines during the Brexit campaign.

Political Gambit Backfires, Spectacularly

If Britons have such a tenuous understanding of the EU, should the referendum have been held at all? Critics say certain issues are too complex to be distilled into a yes-or-no vote, and that highly technical policies should be left to legislators who’ve been elected by the people and have time to study the issues.

Proponents of referendums, however, argue that they get the ordinary man in the street more interested in politics. Indeed, if anything, Brexit served as a wakeup call to politicians around the world that many voters feel left behind by globalization. Referendums, done right — as in Switzerland, where voters are given booklets that explain in detail the issues that they’re voting on — serve to educate voters, supporters say.

But many counter that the U.K. referendum was different — and not just because of the lack of informational booklets.

“The battle of Brexit came about not because of any serious demand for national change but for … a power vendetta within a tiny group of privileged men,” wrote Scottish journalist Neal Ascherson in the London Review of Books.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron called the referendum in 2013 as a political maneuver to unite his Conservative Party and appease angry euroskeptics. The pro-Europe Cameron never imagined the Leave side would actually win. Polls at the time showed Brits had no interest in decoupling from the EU. Now, Cameron’s legacy will forever be tarnished by a gamble that amounted to political suicide.

“The story of the referendum … is one of people taking a joke too seriously,” author Jonathan Coe wrote, also in the London Review of Books.

“As a passionate Remainer, I’m trying to accept the result with good grace, but it’s hard when it was brought about by a campaign eloquently described by (former BBC reporter turned novelist) Robert Harris as ‘the most depressing, divisive, duplicitous political event of my lifetime,’” Coe lamented.

The morning after the referendum, many Britons woke up with a Brexit hangover, or what some are calling “Bregret,” particularly after markets plummeted and the value of the pound tumbled. Some Brits said they were simply casting a protest vote, never thinking the Leave camp would come out on top.

Up to 7 percent of Leave voters and 3 percent of Remain voters said they regretted the way they voted, a poll conducted by London-based Opinium Research found.

More than 4 million people have signed a petition to rerun the vote. Others, however, want a break from the ballot box. A July ComRes poll for the Independent newspaper found that 57 percent of respondents rejected calls for a second referendum. And for now, May’s government has doused Remainers’ hopes in cold water, saying the referendum was a “once in a generation” vote and the outcome has to be respected.

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Photo: By Tom Evans - https://www.flickr.com/photos/number10gov/27798459571/ via Wikimedia Commons
British Prime Minister David Cameron announces his resignation in the wake of the Brexit referendum to sever the United Kingdom from the European Union, a political gambit that backfired spectacularly on Cameron.

Some experts agree that ignoring the results could spark another round of upheaval. “It is impossible to reverse Brexit. The idea of overturning such a clearly and legitimately expressed will of the people would gut many of the most cherished principles of British democracy,” Jeremy Shapiro, research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Judy Dempsey of Carnegie Europe.

At the same time, Shapiro said he couldn’t envision Brexit moving forward. “It has become clear just in the few days since the June 23 referendum that the process of separating the U.K. from the EU is too laced with economic complications and geopolitical uncertainties to proceed,” he said. “So, the unstoppable political force of the people’s will has crashed into the bureaucratically immovable object of EU membership. Something impossible will have to happen.”

Brexit Do-Over

Dempsey, a nonresident senior associate for Carnegie Europe, surveyed a group of experts for her “Strategic Europe” blog on whether Brexit could be reversed.

“In theory yes, but in the practical world of politics, it is very hard to see how the British vote to exit the EU can be reversed,” former Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told Dempsey. “It’s of course up to the U.K. political system. But I fail to see that it can deliver a U-turn of such massive magnitude in any reasonable timeframe.” 

Yet other experts pointed out that there are various avenues the Conservative Party could take to forestall, or even abandon, the Brexit divorce. It could hold off on invoking Article 50, for example, and drag out negotiations with the EU. Even if Article 50 is triggered, “Britain has two years to complete its separation, or longer if all other EU members agree. That is a long time in politics,” Uri Dadush, senior associate in Carnegie’s International Economics Program, noted in the Strategic Europe blog. “Reversal could occur either if a new referendum overturns Brexit or if a new government is elected on a Remain platform.”

“There are many possible scenarios, from Scotland blocking Brexit to the U.K. government putting a mildly changed relationship to a second referendum,” Fraser Cameron, director of the EU-Russia Centre, told Dempsey. “But more important is why reverse the decision now? Why not let those who campaigned for Brexit take responsibility and see how far they get in negotiating a new nirvana for the U.K.?”

Some analysts told Dempsey that while Britain may not attain nirvana, it might wind up with something akin to a Norway-like relationship with the EU, whereby the U.K. would still have access to the single market, but would have to accept the free movement of labor in return.

That arrangement, however, would essentially make the Leave victory moot by reinforcing the status quo — all while stripping Britain of the political influence it once wielded in Brussels as a voting EU member.

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Photo: By 0x010C - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
London is one of the largest financial centers in the world, but following the Brexit decision, other European cities such as Frankfurt and Paris are vying to become the next financial hub.

Remain advocates haven’t given up hope, though. “Those who argue that the vote should be blindly accepted fall into the trap set by populists pitting so-called ordinary people against the elites,” Cornelius Adebahr, associate in Carnegie’s Europe Program, told Dempsey. “The referendum was consultative in nature, called by a prime minister eager to secure his party base and hijacked by opponents for political opportunity, with a campaign filled with hyperbole, hubris and hysteria.

“Certainly, in a referendum intended to be about regaining sovereignty, the British Parliament should rule supreme. Its members, most of whom are against Brexit, were democratically elected, and the members of the U.K. government have pledged to serve the country’s interest. Time for both to act accordingly and call for an early general election.”

There haven’t been any moves to force an early general election, but a parliamentary committee has begun an inquiry to explore, among other issues, the “role and purpose of referendums and the relationship between direct democracy” — as in Switzerland — “and parliamentary democracy.” Among the questions the committee will seek to answer: What is the legal status of referendums in the U.K. and what questions are appropriate to be determined by referendums?

Parliament “still has to pass the laws that will get Britain out of the 28-nation bloc, starting with the repeal of the 1972 European Communities Act,” journalists Brian Wheeler and Alex Hunt wrote on the BBC News website.

Peter Ludlow, chairman of the European Strategy Forum, warns that parliamentary gimmicks won’t sit well with voters. “The British people were consulted, and a majority of them said Leave. To plead now that the British Parliament can, let alone should, ignore the popular vote is simply not credible,” he told Dempsey.

“It is equally unrealistic to imagine that the U.K. will be offered another deal that can be voted on in a second referendum. This has happened in the past when Denmark and Ireland voted no to EU treaties. But the starting point was totally different in each case,” Ludlow added.

“The only development that might transform the outlook is therefore the election of a new, pro-EU government in the U.K.,” he concluded. “Given the post-Brexit turmoil in British politics, a realignment is not impossible. However, the new party is unlikely to win an election unless and until Brexit has been consummated and the electorate has had an opportunity to see just what a shabby option it is.”

At the moment, the next general election is set to be held in 2020, but early elections could be called if two-thirds of MPs vote in favor of such a move — a tall legislative order.

For now, many analysts expect Parliament to give May, a seasoned EU negotiator, time to set the terms for Britain’s departure from the bloc. Meanwhile, the Remain camp will be doing just that — biding its time, to see how she does.

The final verdict could take years. In fact, according to one ComRes poll, a quarter of Britons think the U.K. will still be a member of the EU in 10 years’ time.


About the Author

Karin Zeitvogel (@Zeitvogel) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on August 2, 2016

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