The Brexit Vote: The Wrong Question for Britain and Europe

von Neil Walker
1. A Divisive Decision

Referendums are supposed to provide decisive interventions in the affairs of state. They are designed to produce clear ‘yes or no’ answers to large political questions. And as these answers also come with a rare level of popular endorsement, this should facilitate their effective and timely implementation.

That, at least, is the theory. And the tone and rhetoric of the UK Brexit referendum campaign, which reaches its climax on June 23rd, would seem to back this up. Perhaps the only thing that both sides – Remain and Leave – are agreed on, and which accounts for the ever more febrile atmosphere of claim and counter-claim, is that the choice before us is a stark one. In terms of constitutional futures a binary vision of ‘in’ or ‘out’ increasingly dominates the UK debate, a crude black and white landscape with all shades of grey banished.

Yet the referendum theory is in fact deeply flawed. In the first place, regardless of the result, we can look forward to protracted and uncertain post-referendum negotiations before any definitive way ahead emerges. This is so whether the decision is taken to remain, in which case the bare terms of the special settlement reached between UK Government and the European Council in February will have to be fleshed out and made fit for implementation[1]; or, alternatively, the decision is taken to leave under Art. 50 of the Treaty on European Union, in which case of one of several exit routes – the Norwegian-style EEA model, the Swiss-style EFTA-plus bespoke bilateral Treaty package, the Turkish-style Customs Union, or the lowest common denominator WTO fall-back option – will be pursued. In either case, the road will be long, arduous and unsympathetic, its precise destination unclear.

However, the exhaustive (and exhausting) detail of post-referendum negotiation is not my main focus. Rather, I want to examine the prior and more basic flaw in the binary vision ...

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