A second referendum is the only way out of the Brexit mess
Updated 19:29, 16-Apr-2019
Chris Deacon

Editor's note: Chris Deacon is a postgraduate researcher in politics and international relations at the University of London and previously worked as an international commercial lawyer. The article reflects the author's opinion, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

With the Article 50 deadline extended by the European Council to 31 October 2019, the UK has six months of breathing space within which to find a solution to the Brexit mess that has engulfed its politics. Prime Minister Theresa May's deal has been rejected by Parliament multiple times. British Members of Parliament (MPs) themselves have been unable to come to an alternative consensus, other than that a ‘no deal' Brexit is unacceptable. 

The governing Conservative and opposition Labour Party are in talks to find a compromise but appear to be bogged down in semantics and partisanship – it seems unlikely they will be able to come to an agreement that does not risk tearing their respective parties apart. A second public referendum is now the only way out.

The idea of having a second referendum on Brexit is nothing revolutionary. Indeed, it has even emerged that some of Brexit's top supporters such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, before the UK even voted to leave the EU, had floated the idea that there might be an initial "remain/leave" referendum, followed by a second ‘how to leave' referendum. This taps into one of the key arguments of proponents of a second referendum: that it was never clear what ‘leave' actually meant in the first referendum and that it only makes sense that the public should decide not just that they wish to leave the EU, but how they wish to do so.

This reality is exposed by the very debate that has gripped UK politics for several months now: What form of Brexit can gain a majority of support in the UK House of Commons? Many hardline Brexit supporters – who oppose May's own deal – now advocate the UK leaving the EU with no deal, moving to trade on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules while negotiating the terms of a free trade agreement. Other so-called “soft” Brexiters support the UK leaving the political union of the EU, but remaining in either or both of the Single Market (similar to Norway) and the Customs Union (similar to Turkey). Other more novel options also exist.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks in Parliament, London, February 13, 2019. /Reuters Photo

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks in Parliament, London, February 13, 2019. /Reuters Photo

If one looks back at the debates and discussions during the Brexit referendum campaign, there was no clear position as to which of these options the UK might take if it voted to leave. Thus, those who voted for Brexit likely did so with a myriad of different Brexit “flavors” in mind. Given this, it surely makes sense to give the British public the chance to now express their will as to the specific model they support.

This argument is reinforced by the fact that all British people – politicians and members of the public alike – now know so much more about the realities of Brexit than at the time of the first referendum. For example, the Irish Border issue was only discussed in passing during the campaign but is now the defining obstacle of finding agreement on Brexit. 

It has become clear that – subject to technological innovation to the contrary – it is impossible for the UK to fully leave the EU and its structures (including the Single Market and Customs Union) without the introduction of a "hard border" between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (in contravention of the Good Friday Agreement), or a border down the Irish Sea, between Great Britain and Northern Ireland (something completely unacceptable to supporters of the union of the four nations of the UK). 

Pro-Brexit supporters gather on Parliament Square in central London for the "Leave means leave" rally in London, UK, March 29, 2019. /VCG Photo

Pro-Brexit supporters gather on Parliament Square in central London for the "Leave means leave" rally in London, UK, March 29, 2019. /VCG Photo

This issue is, therefore, of grave importance to the very fabric of the UK and has changed the perspectives of a lot of people, many of whom might change their mind in a second referendum.

Finally, we have the practical argument for a second referendum as alluded to in the introduction to this article. It has become clear that British MPs are just not able to find a compromise solution themselves. Given that it also appears that a ‘no deal' scenario will not be countenanced by May (or allowed by MPs), how can Brexit progress unless the public is allowed to break the logjam? 

At the same time, the public should of course also be allowed the opportunity to vote to remain in the EU in any new referendum. As Brexiter MP David Davis said himself – “if a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.”

Opponents – principally hard Brexiters – decry a second referendum as anti-democratic. But how can more democracy be undemocratic? It may even become the case that, if a “harder” Brexit appears lost in the coming months, Brexiters themselves may join Remainers in supporting a second referendum, seeing it as the only way to ensure Brexit still happens. At that point, a second referendum will become the only game in town, and the UK government may no longer have a choice in the matter.

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