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Why A Second Brexit Referendum Is Less Likely Than One Might Like to Believe

By Luna Schlör

Just Food

As the United Kingdom is slithering towards a No-Deal-Brexit on April 12, the UK government in the short run faces two options: to carry through with the No-Deal-Brexit — an undesirable option likely to elicit severe economic consequences — or to plead with the EU for another extension. The possibility of another, potentially much longer deferment of Brexit has rekindled hopes of another EU membership referendum to stop Brexit altogether, but a second referendum is less likely to happen than we might like to believe.

On March 29, 2019, the day for which Britain was originally scheduled to leave the EU, UK Prime Minister Theresa May submitted her unpopular Brexit deal a third time to parliament for voting after it had already been rejected twice in January and earlier in March. The EU had granted the UK a short deferment of the original leaving date of March 29 to either May 22 if May’s proposal were to finally pass in the third run or to a No-Deal-Brexit on April 12 otherwise. The UK parliament did defeat May’s deal a third time, thus setting the UK on a course towards No-Deal-Brexit. However, the EU has been open to discuss the possibility of another, much longer postponement of Brexit given the most recent defeat of May’s deal on March 29. Most Britons including many Brexit-supporters seem to agree that in light of the economic risks of the no-deal scenario, avoiding No-Deal-Brexit is paramount even at the cost of another, longer Brexit deferment. Some more ardent Brexiteers, however, fear that a longer postponement will further soften up the final Brexit deal, if not give rise to a second referendum.

As the world has watched Theresa May over the past two years making every possible effort, yet failing, to find a Brexit agreement that can pass UK parliament, it almost seems as though an agreement acceptable to both the EU and the highly factionalized UK parliament does not exist. In this case, another postponement for May to present the same deal over and over again to the UK parliament will not break the stalemate. If no Brexit deal can be found, the UK seems to be left with an ultimatum: to leave without a deal or to hold a second referendum to potentially stay as an EU member after all.

The one thing that most British politicians seem to agree on is that the No-Deal-Brexit is among the worst possible scenarios. Even many vehement Brexit-supporters acknowledge that a No-Deal-Brexit is likely to severely damage the British economy. Estimates for the expected GDP loss from a No-Deal-Brexit hover around nine percent and the British Department of Health is even stockpiling medical supplies anticipating delays in the supply chains. This seems to leave the Britons with only one option: a second referendum.

What might be less obvious is that there are a range of options in between these extremes. If current UK politics finds itself in a stalemate, one solution is to shift the balance of powers by holding new general elections and potentially reconstituting the government. Prime Minister May could, for instance, call for new general elections as she did in 2018. New general elections might actually weaken her support in parliament as they did last year, but elections have the potential to restore the parliament’s capacity to act. A shifted balance of power might pave the way to pass some Brexit-deal through parliament, although not necessarily May’s current deal. Parliament itself can also invoke new general elections through a no-confidence vote although this move has previously failed in January, if narrowly. New general elections might even give way for the Labour party, currently in the opposition, to take hold of the government. This would mean a fundamental shift in the government’s vision that could open new pathways in the Brexit negotiations with the EU.

A second referendum, on the other hand, not only fundamentally questions the credibility and legal validity of referenda as a whole, but it is also unlikely given the current government and parliament dynamics. The Conservative pro-Brexit government under Theresa May would hardly initiate a second referendum spontaneously. While the parliament could theoretically force a second referendum, this would require organized and established support for such a motion among the members of parliament under Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn, who had been critical of the EU since the beginnings of his political career, has been hesitant to push for another referendum. He recently mentioned that a second referendum may be favorable, but whether Corbyn truly holds this conviction is open to doubt. Steven Fielding, professor for political science at the University of Nottingham, interprets Corbyn’s statement rather as a half-hearted attempt to smooth divisions in his party than an action plan. At a conference in 2018, for that matter, the Labor Party under Corbyn decided to exhaust other options such as general elections first before considering to push for a second referendum.

For now, Britons can only hope that their government manages to avert a No-Deal-Brexit on April 12 through dialogue with the EU. If Prime Minister May can in fact broker a longer Brexit postponement, there are a range of options that the UK parliament and government will probably explore before seriously considering another plebiscite. A second referendum is not without the range of possibilities, but for the time being it may be less viable than one may like to believe.

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