Mai’a K. Davis Cross is the Edward W. Brooke professor of political science at Northeastern University. She is also a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Politics of Crisis in Europe.”
It may seem that the June 8 general election in the United Kingdom puts Britain’s exit from the European Union on solid democratic ground. In fact, however, this is only the latest stage in a deeply problematic saga that has been anything but democratic.
Beyond the fact that former prime minister David Cameron promised a Brexit vote only as a desperate measure to stay in power in 2015, relying on a popular referendum as the sole determinant of the U.K.’s status in the E.U. was a bad course of action.
Political scientists have long acknowledged that referendums are a poor gauge of voters’ actual preferences. Electorates are especially vulnerable to manipulation when complex issues are reduced into a simple yes or no question. Results often come down to which side has more money and persuasive marketing. This was certainly true in the case of the Brexit vote. The “Leave” side mischaracterized and even lied about the nature of the E.U. and the U.K.’s role in it. And we now know that the same company that used personal data to individualize propaganda and fake news in President Trump’s campaign — Cambridge Analytica — was paid to work for the “Leave” side.
The undemocratic nature of the process goes even deeper. First, there is no legal precedent in the U.K. system for making major, constitutional decisions in this way. With no single, written constitution, British governance since the 17th century has been based firmly in the supremacy of Parliament. Although Parliament did authorize the 2015 European Union Referendum Act, nothing in either the act or U.K. law stipulated that the referendum would be binding. Despite this, the referendum was used to circumvent Parliament, and it took a lawsuit for the Supreme Court to finally grant members of Parliament the right to vote on invoking Article 50. But by then, it was more than seven months after the fact, and it had become politically impossible for Parliament to vote against the already questionable referendum results.
Second, there was the simple 50 percent threshold. It is hard to imagine any other country in the E.U. using such a low-bar decision for such a high-stakes question. For example, the French Constitution states that France is in the E.U., and the Italian Constitution forbids abolishing international treaties with a popular vote. They would have to actually change their constitutions — no easy feat — before a vote on membership could even take place, and their constitutional courts would still be able to block it.
Finally, British Prime Minister Theresa May — who only inherited her position from Cameron – has been on shaky ground in her pursuit of a hard Brexit. The simplistic language of the referendum said nothing about the nature of the withdrawal. May did not even support the “Leave” campaign before the vote. Now she repeatedly echoes the pro-Brexit United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in speeches even though that far-right party has all but evaporated. Since triggering Article 50, May has continued to sideline Scotland and Northern Ireland, both of which voted to remain. And she is still only willing to pay lip service to Parliament, giving it an up-or-down vote only on the final text of the withdrawal agreement — a vote she has vowed to ignore if it doesn’t go her way.
Since May was never publicly elected as prime minister, her surprise call for a general election might seem to allow for some kind of democratic mandate. After all, Brexit is the most significant change in the U.K.’s global role since the end of its empire. But May’s motives are best explained by the numbers: Data experts thought that she had a better chance to win now than in two years.
And yet, like Cameron’s gamble on Brexit, the snap election is backfiring. The dramatic loss of support that May has already experienced, especially in the face of a weak opponent, makes her approach even less legitimate. The only way to start reducing Britain’s democratic deficit would be for her party to lose. A coalition of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, for instance, would bring Parliament back into the process, and this would bode much better for British democracy as Brexit plays out.
The E.U., by contrast, has been remarkably fair in dealing with Brexit all along. From Cameron’s first announcement, E.U. leaders were willing to work with the British, giving ground on core issues such as immigration and exemption from the principle of an “ever closer Union.” When that didn’t work, the E.U. then made it clear that it would negotiate its side by taking into account both member-state and E.U. citizens’ preferences and embracing democratic deliberation and transparency in the terms of the withdrawal agreement.
Indeed, the democratic deficit will only deepen when the U.K. actually leaves the E.U. Despite Brexit, the British will always need to work closely with the E.U. But when they no longer have a vote in E.U. governance and cannot even sit at the decision-making table in Brussels, they will truly experience what it feels like to follow rules that they do not make. Brexit may have been envisioned as a means of restoring democracy and sovereignty to the British people, but that is far from what is actually happening.