EURef2: the nail in the coffin for Britain’s relationship with Europe?

Instead of being the tool to keep people in the loop like many say, a second EU Referendum would likely be a force for destabilisation both in the U.K. and across the European Union.

By Sam W. Shenton | 6th December 2016

While the ‘destination’ of Britain leaving the European Union was decided in a referendum held on June 23rd, the question of the path to Brexit has taken centre-stage in a heated political climate. While many on the losing remain side favour the concept of a ‘Soft Brexit’ involving retaining some level of single market membership or access, many on the Leave side now say there is a mandate for Britain to leave the EU, the extent of its single economic union and judicial institutions and other bodies and regain ‘full’ sovereignty. Others, including the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party, have called for a second Brexit referendum — not one held to over-ride the first (as much as some would like…), but one to decide the outcome of Brexit.

It is that policy that, above all else and all Brexit stances, is most troubling. While the issue of campaigns should have been settled on June 23rd, some now want to extend that period into a second referendum, bringing up old campaigns and new divisions. While remain-leaning politicians have argued that the first referendum shouldn’t have been held in the first instance and that the campaign drew up too much division within society, they now call for a second vote. Because, obviously, the only way to heel the divisions of an initial referendum is by holding a second referendum on a similar issue scarcely three years later.

But forgetting the domestic sphere for a moment, let’s consider what a second EU Referendum being held would mean in this context. It would mean that for approximately two years, Theresa May’s government would have negotiated the terms of some kind of deal with an exit from the European Union in sight. While some may be unhappy with that deal, it would be a deal, and it would be presented to the British people as a unilateral deal between the UK and the EU — whether its arrangements be for a fixed time, be aimed as ‘interim,’ or be semi-permanent or completely so. Calls for a referendum on the issue firstly assumes that people have an issue with the deal, that the relationship between the UK Government and the European Union is unsatisfactory — a very dangerous declaration when Europe is faced with such difficult political climates.

The very holding of a referendum, therefore, undermines any new relationship between the UK and the EU— it tells the European Union that Britain isn’t interested in co-operation anymore. While the Brexit vote may have harmed our relationship with Europe, it is not lost and it can be re-invigorated in a new way. A second EU Referendum would undoubtedly be a nail in the UK — EU relationship’s coffin, however, with furthering distrust between the European and UK Executives being the result. That new relationship is vital to the success of the British economy over the coming years, and part of the reason so many oppose plans such as a ‘hard Brexit’ which will see the UK outside of Europe’s economic potential.

On the topic of ‘hard Brexit,’ it’s therefore odd that the people and politicians that say they oppose such ‘economic vandalism,’ like Lib Dem leader Tim Farron and the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, are calling for a second ballot on the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU. There is a bottom line here: regardless of what any deal is, if it gives the British economy advanced levels of access to the European single market then it is better than a rejection of any deal and Britain returning to WTO tariff status for trade with Europe. The ‘hardest’ Brexit of all, and one favoured by so many on the Eurosceptic right, is the only alternative in a referendum, which presents a binary choice, to a ‘bad’ Brexit deal. There’s no do-overs or returning to the drawing board, the deal is accepted and we continue to trade on new terms, or we return as an outside irrelevancy to Europe.

Why then, must those in the former Remain campaign insist on a vote that will destabilise the European Union’s relationship with Britain even further than the original vote did? Instead of focussing on the task at hand and holding the government to account over its admittedly shambolic and lacklustre Brexit strategy – its complete lack of a plan – parties of the liberal left are fighting irrelevant policy battles on how to appeal to a non-cohesive demographic: “the 48%.” While Theresa May’s government is meant to be held to account by opposition parties, the prospect of a second referendum is being discussed as either a way to undermine further the relationship between the EU and Britain – or possibly to block the enactment of Brexit when the June referendum is no longer at the top of people’s concerns.

Let’s suppose for a second that a second referendum is about blocking Brexit, eventually – how does it play out? We reject the deal at the end of a negotiation to leave the EU, then hope that we either apply to rejoin or that it is somehow not too late to go back on the Government’s triggering of Article 50? Not only does it make the UK look like a laughing stock and diminish our clout in and out of Europe, it would project a lack of confidence in ourselves and in our own electorate. While we may ponder about motives for the Brexit vote, the fact is that that is how the electorate voted – we knew the rules, we faced them; Leave won. The blocking of Brexit via a second referendum would simply add more force to the forces of destabilisation across Europe and send Britain into further political, constitutional and begin economic crisis.

To many on the Remain side, a second referendum on the terms of Brexit may seem an ideal solution to the current confusion that much of the electorate and indeed British political establishment and system is currently facing. However, the negative implications of a referendum mean that the policy makes little sense for those enthusiastic about the European project and who want to remain part of it, with the possibility of further European destabilisation being a prospect everyone should want to avoid – meaning that in the grand scheme of events, a second EU Referendum makes little political sense.