Should we revoke Article 50?
Perhaps the most notable failure of the 2016 Remain campaign, apart from the complacency of its supporters, was that it did not present the electorate with many reasons for remaining. The negativity of the campaign, focusing as it did almost totally on the disasters inherent in leaving the EU (almost all of which were based on truth and are staring us in the face – which to be fair is more than can be said for the ‘facts’ presented by their opponents in the Leave camp!), had a lot to do with the eventual result. However, a petition to ask parliament to revoke Article 50, and effectively ignore the referendum, has over 5 million signatures as I write this and is clearly on a roll. It effectively drives a cart and horses through the debate in parliament, which has in the main been respectful of the referendum result. It also offers a (rather appealing to many) opportunity to get out of our current parlous situation without more in-fighting, without depending on the EU for extensions and permissions, and without the perilous, time-consuming and expensive gamble (a gamble whichever view you hold) of holding another referendum. I suspect this is the secret of its success, as it was started in late February and has only in the last few days suddenly begun to snowball.
Rather than going back to the country - which now has a different demographic from three years ago, and which has had the opportunity to view (generally with dismay) the terrible mess Mrs May’s government has gotten us into, Stan and Ollie style - the petition organisers argue that it might be better to recognise that we are better in the EU fold than out of it, something which, as I have said, the Remain campaign largely failed to point out in 2016. For one thing, the poorer fringes of the UK (including some, like Cornwall, whose voters supported Leave) gained immense financial advantages from EU membership for infrastructure and business support, which they will almost certainly not receive from the UK government after Brexit. For another, Europe has the strength to counterbalance the US, China and Russia in world politics, particularly with the UK on board, where on our own we are minnows. And most importantly, the problem of Irish conflict may recur if there is a harder border in place – as there cannot fail to be, backstop or none, if we leave. The peace process in Northern Ireland was enabled by the common membership in the EU held by Eire and the UK, and it may well unravel without this essential cornerstone.
Quite apart from the advantages for Britain that came with EU membership, there is the very real prospect of a destabilisation of the world economy happening as a result of our exit from the EU. Austerity in this country and elsewhere, arising from the 2007/8 financial crisis, is already creating hardship for many, which will only worsen if Brexit disruption in Europe creates the conditions for a deeper recession. This is not a wild doom-laden prophecy but a very real prospect of concern to such bodies as the IMF and the World Bank, and something which in my view, taking an ethical perspective, we should not be ignoring as though Brexit was all about us and what we want.
Add to these points the growing evidence that in 2016 not only was the referendum process flawed (for example, 66% rather than 50% is the level of support needed for major constitutional change in most countries), but the Leave campaign broke electoral rules and presented as fact speculations with no real foundation (such as funding the NHS with fantastic sums) and thereby misled many, and it is not surprising that some are beginning to argue that slavishly following the result as a democratic watershed makes no sense at all – especially as parliament cannot agree on anything other than outright rejection of Mrs May’s agreement, which the EU have stated they are not willing to reopen and renegotiate. However, a new referendum would be unpredictable, as younger people in general supported Remain where the older generation supported Leave, and the demographic is changing, and many minds have changed in both directions over the nearly three years that have passed since the original one was held. It might also risk reopening the deep wounds inflicted on the social fabric by the 2016 campaign, which saw members of the same family on different sides of the argument - divisions which have in many cases remained (in my own family too).
As it happens, the situation in Europe is changing, just as our demographic is. Our rejection of the EU in the 2016 referendum has focused many minds in Europe and its leaders already realise there is a need to balance centralisation with individual countries’ freedom to put in place laws that are right for them. In other words, a future in the EU might be very different from our experience in the past. There might be more chance of a reform of the CAP and the fishing quota system, for example, and we would need to work to ensure, for everyone’s benefit, that the core of the EU doesn’t dominate the political agenda to the detriment of newer members – something we have been and would be uniquely placed to do, being outside the euro and independent of the EU core of six, and therefore able to counterbalance the power of France and Germany. There is little doubt that our revocation of Article 50 would be met with enormous relief in Brussels and other European capitals. Britain represents a significant proportion of the EU economy, not to mention hosting one of the major financial centres of the world, and is the major trading partner for many EU members. The gap we would leave, with or without a Brexit deal, would be enormous. It is the EU realisation of this, and of the chaos that would ensue from a No Deal Brexit, that is driving their willingness to extend the Article 50 deadline, albeit with conditions (for they too are weary of the argument and wish to push us to some resolution quickly, and who can blame them?)
We therefore have an opportunity right now to rejoin, or rather return to, the centres of power in Europe with goodwill, though it would need firm leadership (and from whom are we to get this, I wonder, among our current politicians?) first of all to recognise that the 2016 referendum result is dead in the water, and secondly to make sure that those in the EU who are not so well disposed towards us do not use our current embarrassments to humiliate us. This would benefit no one, but I note that Donald Tusk is trying to make at least friendly-sounding noises towards us even at the moment, which is encouraging. But should we take it?
Such an action would of course in the short term create an enormous outcry from the hard-line Brexiteers both in politics and in the country. That is to be expected and must be borne. But they have had their chance, and a fine mess they have made of it. There could have been a deal which would have commanded cross-party support, and which Remainers such as myself would have been prepared to go along with. We cannot always win the argument and the point of democracy is that those who have lost respect the majority and come to terms with the result of votes. The whole problem with Brexit has been precisely that this has not happened, either in parliament or in the country, because it has been clear all along a) that the referendum result was flawed; and b) that Mrs May’s priorities have been to keep her own party together and negotiate a deal that they would be willing to support. These priorities were politically wrong in the first place and have failed to deliver even what they were designed to do. The Conservatives will never agree on Europe, whether we are in or out of the EU. It is a running sore that may end by destroying them. But must the world be destabilised, as well as Europe and the UK, in an attempt to keep the Tory party together?
I’ve come to believe that in the national interest, if for no other reason, it is time to revoke Article 50 and rebuild our relationship with the European Union. But it is now or never. If I have convinced you, please sign the petition at https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/241584.