(Published by the Western Mail, 30 June)
The Viking Museum at Roskilde in Denmark has the remains of a longboat built near Dublin in 1042 by Scandinavian boatbuilders as a warship. It’s a reminder, if you like, that links across our continent, forged in war but also by trade, have centuries-old roots that pre-date the era of modern capitalism.
But modern-day Ireland and Denmark may also have pointers for us following last Thursday’s referendum vote for Brexit. For both these countries have had to go back to their electorates more than once to seek endorsement of their relationship with the European Union
The shock of last Thursday’s vote has yet to wear off. The pound has fallen, some banking and other shares have been temporarily suspended, and there is a leadership vacuum in both main parties at Westminster. In Scotland, action is underway to prepare the ground for a second independence referendum, and there is talk of an attempt, unlikely to succeed, to block Brexit. The possibility of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic crystallises the impact of Brexit on the Good Friday agreement. In Wales, Carwyn Jones has called for the final Brexit proposals to be put before Parliament and all the devolved institutions.
In Brussels and Luxembourg, British officials who work for EU institutions are wondering what their legal employment future will be. Beyond the political class, there has been a Great Petition for a second referendum. Meanwhile expats, retired or working in EU member states, don’t know what the future holds. And here at home we have seen an appalling increase in racially-motivated hate crimes, with racists clearly feeling licensed to parade their prejudices in public.
Even now, we don’t know what Brexit means. EU leaders are saying there will be no discussions until the UK triggers article 50. The Leave side still sounds – to be charitable – vague and uncertain as to what it wants. Sooner or later, many of those who voted Leave will find that those things they thought Leave would deliver – more money for the NHS, an end to immigration full stop, access to the single market without EU rules – will never be realised. That will be the inheritance for the next Conservative Prime Minister.
The likelihood is that there will be a general election in the near future, after the Conservative leadership election. Never mind the Fixed Term Parliament Act – no Opposition Party can vote against the calling of a General Election for fear of looking ‘frit’.
So what should Labour say on Europe in that election? I believe it should state, unequivocally, that it will put the final terms of Brexit to the people. That will mean a second referendum. But not a re-run of last week’s vote, which is essentially what the Great Petition demands. Instead, it would be a vote on whether the Brexit terms are better than the status quo of current membership. That’s a real choice, a meaningful choice, free of the mendacious populist distortions of the Leave campaign in the recent campaign. It will be a concrete set of proposals, and people will have to decide whether that is better than what we have at present. It would force the parties to engage with the detail. It would force the media, including the BBC, to interrogate the real choice on offer. It will make it clear that there are no easy solutions to the problems which face us, and which provoked last week’s populist revolt against the elites.
It’s an honest position, and it’s a definitive position. If the people endorse the negotiated Brexit position, then we are out. If they don’t, then that is an absolute recognition that the terms of departure are worse than what we have now. It’s a better choice than Cameron’s folly, which was a vote based on a marginal set of changes that were too obscure to be meaningful to most. It will be a vote on a real understanding of what ‘Leave’ means.
There are precedents, of course, and this is where Ireland and Denmark come in. In Denmark, two referendums were held before the treaty of Maastricht passed. Just before the Danish football team headed to victory in the 1992 Euros, Danish voters rejected Maastricht by a small majority. Denmark then negotiated four opt-outs from portions of the treaty, including European Monetary Union, Justice and Home Affairs and Common Defence. The second referendum in 1993 approved the treaty with the opt-outs.
In 2001 Ireland rejected the Treaty of Nice. After clear statements that Ireland would not have to join a common defence policy and affirming the right of Irish parliamentarians to decide on enhanced cooperation, a second referendum the following year approved the Treaty.
In 2005, France and the Netherlands rejected the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, ending the ratification process of that Treaty, ultimately replaced by the Treaty of Lisbon. Ireland called a referendum on that in 2008 – and again their voters rejected it the first time around. After that the Council of Ministers agreed a statement that other member states would not use the Treaty to reduce the number of permanent commissioners in favour of a rotating system with fewer commissioners, nor threaten Ireland’s military neutrality and rules on abortion. Following that, Ireland voted in favour of the treaty in 2009.
Other political leaders in other member states over time have handled things better than David Cameron. There may be no way back from Brexit. But shouldn’t the people be given a real choice on the actual outcome, not the dishonest promises and unfulfilled – and unfulfillable – fantasies of the Leave campaign? David Cameron and the Tories abrogated leadership over the last six months. They opened the door to populism and lies about what Leave would mean. Labour must now provide that leadership. A clear promise to put the Brexit negotiation to the people could unite the party and win new support for Labour at the general election.