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.

A second EU referendum on the deal for the UK outside the EU

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.

A second referendum on an improved reform package

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.

  • It assumes Article 50 will not be triggered immediately after the referendum. Of course, no-one can really say whether it will or won’t be. It won’t be down to the Leave side to decide. While the Government might suggest it will trigger it (as it has), there might also be a change in the make-up of the Government if it ends up backing Remain and loses.
  • This leads onto the question of how close the vote is. If it’s very close then it is just about conceivable that the Government might avoid pulling Article 50 and return to the negotiating table. But if its a big win for Leave then it seems unlikely either side (UK or EU) would push for more negotiations before exit is triggered.
  • The biggest question here though, is what could the EU actually offer in a second renegotiation which would change the vote, be substantially different to what is already on the table and/or meet the demands of the Leave camp? Looking at some of the red line issues for the Leave camp (immigration controls, primacy of UK law, ability to negotiate own trade deals and EU treaty change) it seems unlikely that the first three would be put on the table for the same reasons they have not been part of the current negotiation – most of them can only be achieved by leaving the EU. Treaty change could be put on the table (though what it would include is unclear) but the timeline seems unrealistic. Full treaty change as often demanded by the Leave side would take years. It seems implausible that the UK would live in limbo for years after voting to Leave.
  • It is also a bit unclear where this reform would come from – nothing appears out of thin air or comes for free. Reform requires significant time and effort to detail how things can be done legally and practically in the EU as well as building broad political support.
  • The incentives of the other EU countries have to be considered. While they are clearly very keen to keep the UK inside the EU, they may be wary about setting a precedent in terms of giving significant concessions after voting to Leave the EU, similar to why they didn’t give Greece any concessions after their No vote in the referendum on the bailout deal. This was also driven home in our recent EU wargame.
  • This will also depend on the dynamic – who returns to the table first. If the EU returns to the table after a close vote then there might be more wiggle room, if it is the UK returning and demanding a better deal, it is unlikely to go down well.

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.

A ‘vow’ for a second referendum

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.

A second referendum over time triggered by EU changes (or lack of them)

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:

  • As the Eurozone integrates further a new treaty settlement is needed and this includes substantial overhaul of the EU and its institutions to allow it to work better for both the Euro ins and outs. Ministers could argue this should trigger the referendum lock in the UK, or not. Either way there could be political pressure for another vote, particularly as this scenario could well trigger referenda in a number of Eurozone countries.
  • Of course, similarly, if these changes do not take place or if they are forced through under the current treaty arrangements (which would likely bias the EU towards the Eurozone) there may be a clamour for another referendum. This would be particularly true if the first EU referendum was very close and if there was growing unease inside the Conservative party (if it were still in power).

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.