Latest posts by Alex Mitchell (see all)
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One of my pet hates at the moment is the public debate surrounding Brexit. It’s six months on from the 24 June EU referendum result which saw Leave win by 52% to 48%, and Britain is as divided as ever.
It’s no secret that I voted to remain in the European Union. It’s no secret that I was distraught when the result was announced, yet I quickly accepted the result. I have not supported a second referendum. I have not supported MPs who have said they would do all they can to block it (note that this is a small number). Yet what really aggravates me, I mean really gets me wound up, is Brexiters who just want out of the EU now, without any consideration for the process or the type of relationship we have with our European neighbours. They just want to ‘Take back control now!’
Watch any episode of BBC’s Question Time and you will see deep divisions on Brexit, with audience members not understanding why article 50, the section of the Lisbon treaty that triggers an EU exit, hasn’t been invoked. Panellists argue with those who want to know what the government’s vision for a post-Brexit Britain is before Article 50 is triggered. Each week the same arguments are bandied about and the debate moves no further forward. The debate seems to have fallen into two arguments: ‘Britain voted to leave the EU and leave it we must’ versus ‘This type of Brexit was not on the ballot paper; it was a yes or no answer. Therefore politicians should have a say as to what sort of Brexit the government goes for.’
At present the Supreme Court is listening to an appeal to overturn the verdict of the High Court that Parliament must be consulted and vote on the triggering of Article 50. The High Court ruled the Government doesn’t have the legal or constitutional authority to trigger it themselves. This was a decision the judges and campaigner Gina Miller (who brought the case) were vilified for. The critics didn’t even see the irony in that two of the arguments for leaving the EU were to have British judges ruling on British laws and parliamentary sovereignty – yet here they are shouting against the legal challenge that demonstrates both these points.
If you try to be rational about Brexit, or raise concerns, you are labelled a ‘Remoaner’ and told you are not listening to the will of the people, or not being democratic. That just simply isn’t the case. Firstly, it is undemocratic to shout down opposition, even when a vote has been won. Just because you lost a debate/vote doesn’t mean you enter a vow of silence on that topic. You have every democratic right to discuss and debate for the best situation out of the winning side, and yes you may lose the follow up debates/votes.
Secondly, Britain is going to leave the EU. Prime Minister Theresa May who backed the Remain campaign pledged on her first day in office that she would take Britain out of the EU, with her infamous slogan: ‘Brexit means Brexit’. It is the Prime Minister who has set the date for triggering Article 50 at the end of March 2017. Remoaners haven’t delayed it because we haven’t passed the Government’s own target. Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn has also said his party will not seek to stop Brexit but will seek the best deal for the British public.
Thirdly, it is fair and democratic to consult MPs and the public on the type of Brexit we should aim for. Why? Because that wasn’t on the ballot. The question was ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’ The two options were ‘Remain a member of the European Union’ or ‘Leave the European Union’. There was no discussion as to what sort of exit we would have if Leave won (though there were plenty of pledges from both sides, none of them were binding). I’m sure we all know about the buses with the £350m-a-week for the NHS plastered on the side, which were later described as only a suggestion not a promise once the referendum was over.
We have Hard Brexit, Soft Brexit, Black Brexit, Grey Brexit and today the Prime Minister said she was seeking a ‘Red, White and Blue Brexit’. This is after months of saying ‘Brexit means Brexit’ whenever she was asked about the vision for Britain. How is it clear what sort of deal we are seeking? How is it clear what mandate was given to the Government to implement?
Fourthly, we have to touch on the court case. This is not a case about whether Britain should leave the EU or not. The High court made this very clear, as has the Supreme Court. This is a case on a matter of law.
When the High Court ruled that Parliament was the body that could invoke Article 50, it didn’t pass comment on whether Parliament should vote for or against Brexit. They argued that for Brexit to be legal and proper the Prime Minister and Cabinet couldn’t do it alone. ‘But the people have spoken and voted for Brexit.’ Yes, I 100% agree with you. The British public voted for Brexit – period. The public has spoken.
The problem is in the law that allowed the referendum. Neither the Cameron government nor Parliament added any clause or amendment to the EU Referendum Act that the decision of the people would be legally binding. Nor did they put in the act any clause or amendment giving a governmental mandate to bypass Parliament in the repeal of all legislation tied to our being in the EU as a result of the EU treaties. It was a generic advisory referendum.
Yes, the Prime Minister can sign and repeal treaties without a vote from Parliament, or indeed the general public, however this isn’t just a single, simple treaty. In 1972, Prime Minister Ted Heath passed the European Communities Act that paved the way for Britain to ascend to the European Economic Community (as the EU was then known). This statute began the incorporation of EU law into domestic law and the entanglement of the UK with the EU. Only a new statute can repeal an existing law.
The Government is already planning the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ that, if enacted, will effectively turn all EU legislation within the UK into British legislation that can then be picked over at a later date. This would allow the Government to then decide which elements of legislation to keep and which to remove, necessitating further votes in Parliament. Just because the British people voted in a referendum doesn’t mean the Government or the people have the right to bypass legal process in order to get what they want. How is that itself democratic?
52% of the British public voted to leave the EU but break down the reasoning behind that vote and I bet you don’t get one unifying reason why. Some voted leave to cut red tape, others for parliamentary and judicial sovereignty, others to gain control of our borders and immigration. Others wanted to leave so the UK could seek its own trade deals outside of the EU. Some voted for different reasons or a compilation of reasons.
In all honesty, I don’t know what Brexit looks like and that’s what worries me the most. The Government isn’t telling us what the ‘Red, White and Blue Deal for Britain’ is. I accept that in a negotiation you don’t show your hand, however you also don’t sit at the table giving out soundbites about the sort of hand you have before the dealer even sits at the table. From an economic point of view, the uncertainty about whether Britain will seek access to/be likely to keep access to the single market will stall business decision-making in the long term.
I’m happy that Nissan, Google and Apple have to committed further investment in the UK but I doubt every small- and medium-sized business is going to get a sit-down with the Business Secretary to gain reassurances. We didn’t give the Government a blanket mandate for Brexit because no options were on the ballot. We certainly didn’t give a mandate that all Brexit decisions were to be made by the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, and the two new cabinet posts of Trade Secretary and Brexit Secretary.
We also need to be mindful that Britain might not be negotiating with the same heads of states in the largest EU nations. This past week, the French President Francois Hollande said he would not seek a second term as president in the upcoming elections in 2017, where right-wing populist Marine Le Pen is expected to make the top two. Italy’s Matteo Renzi resigned after losing a referendum on constitutional reform. The Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is facing a strong challenger from the populist right Party for Freedom in March 2017 with Germany’s Angela Merkel also facing a challenge from the right-wing movement.
I just want to see people calm down and understand that Brexit is not straight forward. It’s not instantaneous, and there are areas that still need to be discussed and decided upon. All of this needs to follow the correct legal process and British lawmakers should be kept informed and engaged. Furthermore, we need to respect the different ideas and opinions circulating – even those that come from the Remain camp.