The referendum in 2016 was a strange exercise that deprived the electorate of realistic options. It was a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership in the E.U. without clear choices between real alternatives.
Advocates of Brexit were firmly united in their near-hatred of Brussels, specifically, and foreign influences, generally. But they were disunited in their views of what the alternative to E.U. membership was. Some favored a super-Singapore model with a turbo-capitalist economy, others seemed to lean toward a protected socialist bastion. No one even hinted at the difficulties in finding a way forward.
The withdrawal agreement that is now the center of dispute is no more than a holding operation, as it allows the United Kingdom to remain a party to much of what the E.U. does apart from decision-making.
Brexit will take years. It’s difficult to find experienced observers who believe it can be done in less than five years. To believe it can be done before the United Kingdom faces another general election is a pipe dream in every possible respect. The reality is that this issue will be the main issue for successive British governments.
Sorting out fishing quotas will certainly ignite nationalist passions. There are few international negotiations that cannot be disrupted by fish. But other issues will be far more substantive. Imagine taking Texas out of the reach of the Food and Drug Administration and the Civil Aviation Authority, and the information-sharing arrangements of the FBI, the Federal Communications Commission and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and a host of other regulatory and agency arrangements. None of this can be done in a lunch break.
Add to this that Britain hasn’t really decided where it wants to go. The debate is filled with confusing terms such as “Norway Plus," "Canada Minus,” “Ukraine Plus Plus” and “Switzerland Bilateral.” (The terms correspond to the various forms of relationships these countries have with the E.U.) But there is far more confusion than clarity in the debate, and nothing that even approaches agreement on what to aim for. The E.U. is prepared to negotiate an arrangement along any of these models but will find it difficult to negotiate with a partner that hasn’t made up its mind on what it wants.
Is there then no way out of this rolling meltdown?
Momentum is building toward a second referendum. The campaign for a new People’s Vote has the vocal support also of former prime ministers John Major and Tony Blair.
A second referendum is nothing unusual in Europe and does not violate principles of democracy, as some of its opponents are claiming. In fact, second thoughts are sometimes healthy, and E.U. countries have a solid track record of second referendums as they confront different difficult issues. Denmark and Ireland are among the masters of this.
But even a second referendum isn’t an easy way out. There will be fierce debates on what a referendum should be about. Should it be about choosing between Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement and crashing out without any deal? Between staying in the E.U. and the uncertainties of the withdrawal agreement and the negotiations that will follow? Between a Norway or a Canada model of an E.U. relationship? The confrontation is likely to deepen, and the divisions will not disappear when a result is announced.
The meltdown that the United Kingdom is in is the result of a massive failure of leadership that goes back decades, primarily but not only within the Conservative Party. Bashing Brussels for everything, and hiding the fact that Britain was actually fighting above its weight in the councils of the E.U., was a recipe for today’s disaster
A new referendum might finally force Britain to have an honest debate about the alternatives for the future. It will be necessary to be honest about the true long-term alternatives for the country.
It will not be easy, and the outcome is by no means guaranteed. But it might well be the only way in which the once great nation starts to pull itself out of the morass it is in at the moment. Let’s hope it does — even if it will take some time.