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With the EU referendum campaign about to get under way there has been some background noise around the prospect of there being a second EU referendum. However, exactly how or when this might happen is unclear and confused. Open Europe’s Raoul Ruparel assesses some different potential scenarios for a second EU referendum.
27 January 2016
The idea of a second EU referendum has been floating around for a few months after being first suggested by Vote Leave Campaign Director Dominic Cummings. It has also been mentioned by Mayor of London Boris Johnson amongst others, while Conservative Home has published a useful run down of the pros and cons of the issue. It’s an interesting proposition but the discussion around it remains somewhat confused at the moment. In an attempt to add some clarity to the discussion, I’ve considered a few different scenarios and how likely a second EU referendum is in each of them.
In this scenario the UK votes to Leave the EU, then negotiates the best relationship it can. This deal is then put to a second EU referendum. There is some logic to this scenario – it fits with the referendum approach to deliver democratic legitimacy to the UK’s position In or Out of the EU. That said, it practically looks very unlikely to happen. Mostly because it is not clear what a rejection of the deal offered would mean. The EU would be under no obligation to offer a second deal and if Article 50 had been triggered, there would be no reversing the exit process. Sticking with the current arrangement, possible if Article 50 had not been triggered, would seemingly be in direct violation of the original referendum vote. As such, holding a second EU referendum under this scenario seems unlikely and would be incredibly messy.
This is a more interesting proposition. The idea here is that the UK votes to Leave but that in desperation to avoid that fate the EU returns with a better renegotiation package which is then put to the people. This is a very complex scenario and there are a number of points to consider on all sides.
Ultimately, following a very close vote a second EU referendum is plausible. But it’s hard to imagine what more, in terms of renegotiation, could or would be put on the table in the likely short period between the two votes (it would be interesting to hear more from the Leave side on how they see this playing out).
Forcing a second EU referendum to change the vote without a material change in the situation rings of the EU shenanigans on the Lisbon Treaty and could harm democratic legitimacy and leave a significant amount of the electorate upset.
We should also recognise the campaigning motivation for planting the idea of a second referendum in people’s minds – it makes voting Leave seem less risky, the key challenge the Leave side has to overcome.
Another scenario which could be envisaged is that, if the vote is looking very close with a week or two to go, there is some kind of promise made by the Remain side that another referendum will be held in the future if some of the reforms don’t come to pass or if the EU develops in ways which we do not like. This would be similar in approach to ‘The Vow’ in the Scottish referendum. The logic here is that one of the biggest arguments on the Leave side is that this is the only chance to vote the UK will get for the foreseeable future, so countering that will allow some people to vote to Remain knowing that they will get another say. Of course, this approach is only legitimate if the Government is affiliated with the promise and so far the Government have suggested this will be a once in a lifetime vote.
The above scenarios involve a Leave vote or a very real threat of one, but we could still see a second referendum even if there is a strong Remain vote. As we have pointed out before at length, the EU is likely to undergo some serious changes and is likely to move towards treaty change in the next few years – something I think both sides of the campaign largely agree with. There are a couple sub scenarios of how this could work which involve both substantial change or the lack of it:
Overall, there are a number of permutations which could throw up a second EU referendum though I wouldn’t say any of them are particularly likely or clear cut, especially in the short term. Much of the debate revolves around Article 50 and if/when it might be triggered. This highlights that part of the logic behind the discussion could be to detract from some of the potential weaknesses of the Article 50 process. As noted above, no one can really say for sure whether Article 50 will or will not be triggered immediately. Furthermore, while one may want to hold further discussions either on reform or on the deal outside the EU, it would be up to other member states if they want to negotiate. One thing that is clear is that Article 50 is the only way to definitively bring them to the negotiating table (though of course political pressure should not be underestimated).
All this said, its also hard to see that this referendum will settle the EU debate, not least because it looks set to be close run and the EU looks set to continue to evolve in the coming years.