Neither a remainer nor a leaver be: Hopes and problems of a second Brexit referendum

Voices calling for a second referendum on Brexit are getting louder each day. For that to happen, some fundamental technicalities have to be settled first, but time is running fast.

Much, probably too much, has been written about all the political, economic and social aspects of the ongoing debate surrounding Brexit. Everyone believes to be on the right side of the argument, and everyone seems to know better. Brexiteers, Remainers, the liberal media, the conservative media, academics, backbenchers, former PMs, one half of the British government versus the other half: The fault line caused by Brexit runs through the entire country.

This has become problematic since Prime Minister Theresa May has been unable to bridge the widening gaps of mistrust and anger over the past two years. Her deal – negotiated with the remaining 27 EU member states – enjoys only little support among the public and the House of Commons. So far, the looming alternative of a no-deal exit and its potentially harsh consequences from trade disruptions to economic slump have not pushed enough MPs to endorse her deal.

In the midst of this tense, controversial and heated situation that leaves no-one satisfied, one door seems to open up more by the day: holding a second referendum. As everything else has failed, why not give the people the final say on Brexit? It’s the only way out of the current mess, many commentators claim. But if it is so, it is a road into uncharted territory and may well just lead the UK in circles.

Deal or no deal (or neither)?

For a start, it raises a number of unavoidable questions.

The first issue is fundamental: how many possibilities shall be offered? Should voters be able to choose solely between option 1 (endorse May’s deal) and option 2 (leave the EU without a deal)? Or should the ballot offer option 3, namely not to leave the EU at all? While the latter has recently been deemed legally possible by the European Court of Justice, Brexiteers may argue that it would be undemocratic to question Brexit per se – in June 2016, people got to vote, and the people spoke.

Secondly, if all three options do make it onto the ballot paper, would the preferred choice have to gain at least 50% of all votes to be legitimate? Such a threshold might be difficult to attain when more than two options are on the table. If the absolute majority is not required, would the result be recognised by all political parties, especially if the reversal of Brexit wins?

Winter of discontent

Finally, what role will the British Parliament play? Will it unreservedly respect the outcome of the new referendum or insist on a decisive vote in the House of Commons? Considering that a third of Conservative MPs recently expressed their mistrust in Theresa May during a vote of no confidence, it is by no means definitive that the tensions within the party will ease. And the opposition on the other side of the House may be weak, but it is waiting for its chance to call for elections.

Another referendum offers hope for ending the chaos of previous months. However, if some fundamental questions are not settled first, matters might get even worse. Precious time will be lost, and the room for negotiation between Britain’s political interests prior to Brexit will have shrunk.

“Now is the winter of our discontent”, we read in Shakespeare. Discontent also is the name of the game in British political camps this winter. Some may hope for a Christmas miracle to bridge the fault lines and get Brexit delivered. Others might think that a second referendum is a first step to do so. In that case, they should not underestimate the necessary preparations.

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