An open letter to the British people
Resume The principle of the lesser evil - How to get out of the Brexit trenches? In this open letter to the British people, our director Bjarke Møller is recommending a new constructive way out of the current Brexit chaos. If the motion by Theresa Mays government on the Withdrawal Agreement is rejected tomorrow in the 29th March vote in the House of Commons, then it might be time to consider another way forward. It is based on the lesser evil principle and is including the option of holding a new referendum
We are only a few hours away from March 29th and Brexit is imploding into chaos and political trench warfare. This state of affairs cannot continue.
Some Leave voters, I perfectly understand, might feel betrayed and ‘that your kind of Brexit’ is not taken care of. Some of you just want to get over this mess and leave the EU without any agreement. Some of you might be angry because your government is not able to lead and command a majority, while your MPs fail to agree. Some leave voters prefer a soft Brexit or maybe even May´s deal. But right now the UK’s parliamentary democracy is in deep crisis and the permanent echo of the many no-votes feels like a curse of nothingness.
A former great empire and an admired kingdom of democracy, liberal values, and fine diplomacy is humiliating itself in front of the world in ways we never expected. This cannot go on. Some feel shameful about the whole process. But politicians must rise to the moment and ensure democratic responsibility. It is paramount to find a solution, which over time can reunite the polarised nation on a shared common ground.
We at the European continent, even us Danes with a long experience with popular EU-referenda, have no right to decide which kind of Brexit you prefer. This must be a sovereign democratic decision in the UK because you and your next generations will have to live with it and all its consequences. It is difficult to predict the future. You are undoubtedly faced with one of the most difficult decisions in several decades.
In the midst of this deep national crisis, I really hope that you will find a way out. It requires that all parties are listened to in an open, democratic deliberation on the possible outcomes. The different political minorities must feel respected and treated fairly. Right now, the UK Parliament seems more like a bloody combat zone where many ‘religious’ minorities are not able to define a national compromise.
Not the time for national self-pity
Some use this Brexit crisis to fight for political power by setting party politics and personal gains above the interest of the nation. But this is not the moment where those putting themselves first should be followed. This is not the time for narcissism and national self-pity. It is the moment of finding pragmatic solutions with a solid common ground. Prime Minister, Theresa May, has now felt it necessary to sacrifice herself to get her deal through. In chess one might call this the Queens gambit, where you must be certain about how to win in the following moves. But this is not a game because the future of a whole nation is at stake. The government wants a meaningful vote on the Withdrawal Agreement tomorrow Friday 29th March and the motion will be allowed by the Speaker, John Bercow. It is still very hard to see how the government can mobilise a solid majority behind the deal, and it would be some kind of political miracle if it is approved. But even if the Withdrawal Agreement goes through the most difficult part, defining the future EU-UK-relationship, will still torment a deeply divided Parliament.
One must admire Theresa May for her open recognition of the newly found limits of her own power. More than 1.000 days after the national referendum she has drawn a personal line in the sand. There is indeed a limit to what she should endure as a person and as a political leader.
The hard reality is this: Theresa May never got a clear mandate from the referendum. From the very first moment, she got an impossible task to define what kind of Brexit leave voters actually thought they had voted for. Her predecessor, David Cameron, left everything in ruins without taking responsibility for the mess he had created. It was a huge mistake to let the leave option open to multiple undefined Brexit outcomes and personal imaginations, where everybody freely could vote for whatever they dreamed of. Leave voters voted for their own kind of Brexit, but nobody new which kind of Brexit could prevail.
During the referendum campaign, some leavers just wanted to slam the door to the European house after a long marriage since 1973. They were fed-up with the EU. Other leading campaigners argued that the UK could just leave the EU, but stay in the single market. Yet, others promised another kind of deal, unimagined in scope and beyond the Norwegian solution. Nobody defined what kind of Brexit people actually voted for. It was left open to the Government and the House of Commons to define it.
Now more than 1.000 days later and after a multitude of unsuccessful votes in Parliament, we know what we don´t know. In fact the only thing we know with certainty is that there is no majority for anything.
How to deal with the anxiety of the others?
Even though many leave voters are very dissatisfied, angry, and feel anxious about the future of British democracy and parliamentarism, this is not the moment to give up in despair. This is the moment where one should face reality. Nobody with certainty can claim that a solid majority supports their particular form of Brexit. No one does.
It is also time to recognise the existence of the deep frustrations felt by British voters who voted remain in 2016. Therefore, I also write to those of you who voted to remain in the EU. Some of you are marching in the streets of London. Others campaign or write out your many frustrations in social media posts. Some of you found new parties. People have good reasons to feel saddened by the loss of hard-won European rights. They are fearing the consequences of a hard Brexit when UK crash out on April 12th, undermining the value of the British pound. This will inevitable lead to a negative spiral where the national economy for many years to come will be in crisis, jobs will be lost, investments will drop, and UK will struggle to get new trade agreements as good as the ones you had by being part of the EU. Probably they will be worse due to the difference of power.
I know it can be hard to embrace or accept this kind of future. You and your families might suffer negative consequences, which probably could be avoided by staying in the EU.
But as angry and frustrated as you are, you must also realise what kind of political crisis the UK is going through. It is also in your interest that this great country again lands on its feet and find solid, common ground again. To revoke article 50 and cancel Brexit might give you a short feeling of relief. But be prepared. Such an outcome will not lead to a period of peace, prosperity, and a happy future. No. The 45-52 pct. of leave voters, who really wanted some kind of Brexit, would then have their good reasons to feel betrayed by the political elites and all you good-hearted Europeans just looking for your own rational outcomes, but not thinking of those left-behind – those who with their minds and hearts voted with strong convictions for leaving the EU.
Theresa May is right. It will not be fair not to deliver Brexit. You all must endure the consequences of a democratic referendum, or at least find reasonable and convincing alternatives, which will be acceptable to a huge majority of citizens.
There are no easy solutions and time is short.
Nevertheless, allow me to suggest a possible way forward - a way of national reconciliation.
First of all, the political parties must understand that no one is right now in command over the Brexit process. No one in Parliament or among the electorate enjoys a solid majority. Absolutism is dead. Democracy can only be revitalized by accepting the reality of the many differences and minorities, even some cross-party coalitions trying to find new ‘out-of-the-box’ ideas. The old party system with the polarized debates and the whip voting in Parliament seems incapable of handling this complicated situation.
Mays deal has been rejected twice by huge majorities and it does not seem likely that she will be able to mobilize a slim majority the third time. None of the eight indicative votes on different Brexit solutions got a majority. Ten times no is no solution. Except that it will eventually lead to the UK crashing out of the EU on April 12th, which is the only outcome that a majority of Parliament has clearly rejected.
So what can the Parliament of the many minorities do to overcome the stalemate? Some might hope for another national election to clear the air, but this does not solve the problem of what kind of Brexit should be chosen.
The lesser evil principle and a new referendum
I would rather suggest another way forward: the lesser evil principle. As no one is able to present a positive and clear model with a solid majority, the Parliament should hold a new round of indicative votes to find out which Brexit models are supported by the largest minorities in Parliament. May should also be allowed to present her original deal once more in the new context. Maybe 4 is her lucky number.
After Parliament has decided which two or three Brexit solutions are the lesser evils, they should be put on the ballot paper in a new national referendum, where the electorate gets the opportunity to decide which kind of Brexit they actually prefer. In order to avoid future accusations from hard leavers on a historic betrayal of the elites, the default option - a no deal Brexit should also be on the ballot paper. It is a way to give space to the benefit of the doubt, while at the same time giving the hard Brexiteers a fair chance to fight their cause. All parties must then respect the outcome of the national referendum, whatever the result will be.
The referendum could be organised in two rounds, and if no one is commanding a majority in the first round, then the two most preferred options must compete in a second referendum to find a winner. It is important that the winner gets a solid majority. I would suggest that the winner must have at least 60 per cent of votes to win - i.e. a much higher share than in the 2016-referendum. It is crucial to find such a qualified majority, which will strengthen the legitimacy of the referendum beyond doubt. The time of thin majorities must end when it comes to holding popular referenda on topics of national interest, especially when the burden must be shouldered by generations of citizens.
Multiple choice for minorities
Looking at the results of the indicative votes and reflection on the recent extra support for May´s deal, I would expect three possible alternatives could make it to the ballot paper:
Customs Union, May´s deal, and no deal. The beauty of the Customs Union proposal is that it could easily be adapted as an add-on to May’s deal (the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU).
If Parliament decides to include a fourth option, for instance the cross-party Common Market 2.0 model on the ballot paper, it would indeed be a referendum with four clear Brexit alternatives defined by Parliament.
If a solid majority of Parliament agrees to such a proceeding then the British people will have a fair and second chance of deciding on the kind of Brexit for UK. It will not be against the nature of the outcome in the June 2016 referendum, but it gives the people the opportunity to decide how to translate it into practice.
Time is very limited and the Prime Minister has to inform the European Council before April 12th on a feasible way forward that commands a solid majority in Parliament. The abovementioned proposal could deliver something credible to ensure a further extension of article 50. Does the solution include a clear time-schedule for the new referendum on the different Brexit models then it must be an acceptable solution, also for EU27 leaders at the summit.
The need for flexibility
The national deliberation process should be finalised before June 30, but if the referendum goes into a second round it might be difficult. In any case the British government should send a letter to the European Council on behalf of the Parliament to inform the EU Heads of States that UK does not intend to hold European Parliament elections in May. Before the extraordinary EU-summit a majority of the House of Commons must confirm their will to respect the referendum result, so EU27 also can proceed with certainty.
If the final UK referendum cannot be celebrated before June 30th but is delayed, then the EU should unilaterally allow the UK to get an intermediary transition agreement until the referendum date. Such a time-limited bridge would ensure UK business as usual with the EU and the single market, but without any political rights whatsoever.
It is crucial in this fragile moment of history to show flexibility and form a shared ground of mutual respect and find a democratic procedure. All options come with downsides, so the Parliament should use the lesser evil principle to minimize the differences and put those forward to the people in a new national referendum with multiple choices. Move out of the trenches and seek acceptable democratic compromises on the procedure of decision making. Hopefully future conflicts and misunderstandings can be avoided this way.
Tænketanken EUROPA indtager ikke holdninger som organisation. Denne tekst repræsenterer alene – som alle udgivelser fra Tænketanken EUROPA – forfatterens/forfatternes betragtninger.