This is the first of two posts here in which I’m going to look at Brexit through a democratic, rather than a political lens. I’d argue that Representative Democracy is humanity’s single most valuable invention. It has provided government that fosters a level of prosperity and a standard of justice that all of our ancestors could only dream of, and it has hosted history’s greatest period of innovation.
Representative Democracy is a robust system. It has an internal logic – one that protects it and defines what is possible and what will succeed.
In my next post, I’m going to argue that Brexit was always doomed to be a disaster (whatever one may think about the merits of leaving the EU) because the UK attempted to transform the entirety of its economic/foreign/trade/diplomatic policy using a binary 50%+1 ballot with an undefined outcome.
Today I’ll focus on the EU’s greatest flaw – one that has always been noticed by Eurosceptics, but one that was mysteriously forgotten when the decision to invoke Article 50 was taken in March 2017.
The EU has a Hotel California problem, and it is one that it should solve in its own interests.
There’s a hitch for people who live in places where housing costs are as exorbitant as they are where I live in London though. It’s not a reasonable proposition, and my kids know it.
This micro-problem is one that can be seen anywhere that the social contract has gone stale, and the result is always going to be resentment and fracture.
The balance between “exit” and “voice” is a fine one that all associations are well-advised to revisit regularly.
If the current global political impasses are the symptom of any problem, it may be this one (as ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow argues here).
With this in mind, the Hotel California criticism of Brexit — “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave” — is stinging one. It goes to the heart of the EU’s deepest problem — that it often appears to be a proto-state that is masquerading as an alliance.
The word “appears” there carries most of the weight in the argument between EU-ophiles and British Euroscepticism. The UK would be doing the EU a huge favour if it could neutralise this problem.
So many of the EU27’s post-Brexit headaches could be resolved if they could credibly show the door to a range of crude populist irritants — Poland’s Law & Justice Party, Italy’s Lega / Five Star lash-up, or Hungary’s Fidesz, for example (there are undoubtedly more of these in the pipeline).
By ’show the door’, I don’t mean the euphemistic unilateral ejection that the phrase often implies, but more a reminder that leaving is a very real option that can be taken up fairly easily if they don’t like the wider European consensus around democracy and social justice.
Fixing the balance between exit and voice would solve a number of problems for the EU.
There’s a parent-child flavour to a lot of these political chancers. Our UKIP, among others, have thrived on the perceived grievances that could be removed if they were given the sort of challenge I mentioned earlier;
Don’t like it? Fine! Go!
So many of the EU’s democratic mechanisms won’t work as well as they could do until it is easier for states to be able to leave if they don’t like the direction the wider community is taking.
Such a regular reminder would have made so much of the political nonsense of crude populists less sustainable than it has been. The EU can either challenge these chancers now or deal with it later on when it’s even more of a threat.
It’s in the UK’s interests to persuade the EU to do this now. It’s also in the EU’s interests to do it. So how does this help us out of the mess we are currently in?
It offers the UK a change-up if it is looking for a way of delaying Brexit without committing to remain. It could say this to the EU:
“It is in the EU’s interests that it has friendly and sustainable templates which member-states can use to leave the EU without being in a terrible negotiating position. We have learned this to our cost and we now wish to pioneer a standard exit route that we (and any other member state) can take if/when we are ready to do so.”
I outlined here (elsewhere) how the UK could have left the EU sensibly and well if there was a real sustained appetite for doing so in the country. The depth of the UK’s current irresponsibility can be seen in the fact that it never bothered to open this dialogue in the first place before holding a referendum on the unchartered options contained in the word “leave”.
If the referendum was crazy, it’s hard not to see the decision to trigger Article 50 in these circumstances as being anything short of treasonous in the circumstances.
The UK now needs to delay leaving until it decides what it really wants to do, and until it has negotiated acceptable terms under which it would do so.
It needs to do this with a conversation that takes place throughout the country, and not one that is monopolised by the politicians and political obsessives who have landed in this mess in the first place.
Slugger readers with a long memory will know that I may be the most persistent opponent of referendums that you will ever read, but this is not the same thing as being opposed to people making decisions directly if it is done fairly and properly.
It is now time to establish a comprehensive framework of dialogue and public deliberation around this issue.
The whole of the British political class — the MPs, the parties, the think-tanks, the political media, and so on, have had their chance to do this, and they’ve screwed it up. Its now time to take it out of their hands and decide — as a whole country — what it is that we really want to do next.
In my next post, I’ll look at how this could be done.