Brexit and the principle of the lesser evil
Summary Brexit is imploding into chaos and political trench warfare. Right now the UK’s parliamentary democracy is in deep crisis and the permanent echo of the many no-votes feels like a curse of nothingness.
A former great empire and an admired kingdom of democracy, liberal values and a fine diplomacy is humiliating itself in front of the world in ways we never expected. This cannot go on. Some feel shameful about the whole process. But politicians must rise to the moment and ensure democratic responsibility.
It is paramount to find a solution, which over time can reunite the polarised nation on a shared common ground. But is there any hope of finding a way out of this terrible mess? I believe so. And it is not by calling another election.
Some use this Brexit crisis to fight for political power by setting party and personal gains above the interest of the nation. But this is not the moment where those putting themselves first should be followed. This is not the time for narcissism and national self-pity. It is the moment of finding pragmatic solutions with a solid common ground.
Voters on both sides of the Brexit divide all have very good reasons to feel very dissatisfied, anxious and even angry about the whole process and the future of British democracy, but this is not the moment to give up in despair. This is the moment where one should face reality.
On March 29 the government lost the third vote on the Withdrawal Agreement. It shouldn't surprise us. The hard reality is this: Nobody ever got a clear mandate from the referendum.
From the very first moment, Theresa May as Prime Minister got an impossible task to define what kind of Brexit leave voters actually thought they had voted for. Her predecessor, David Cameron, left everything in ruins without taking responsibility for the mess he had created.
It was a huge mistake to let the leave option open to multiple undefined Brexit outcomes and personal imaginations, where everybody freely could vote for whatever they dreamed of.
Leave voters voted for their own kind of Brexit, but nobody knew the outcome for UK as such. During the referendum campaign, some leavers just wanted to slam the door to the European house after a long marriage since 1973
Others thought UK could just leave the Union, but stay in the single market. Yet, others promised another kind of deal, unimagined in scope and beyond the Norwegian solution. Nobody defined what kind of Brexit people actually voted for.
Now more than 1.000 days later and after a multitude of unsuccessful votes in Parliament, we know what we don´t know. In fact the only thing we know with certainty is that there is no majority for anything. Except for a no to a no deal.
Mays deal has been rejected three times, and none of the eight indicative votes on different Brexit solutions got a majority. Eleven times no is no solution. Except that it will eventually lead to the UK crashing out of the EU on April 12, which is the only outcome that a majority of Parliament has clearly rejected. There are no easy solutions and time is short.
Nevertheless, allow me to suggest an alternative way forward – a path of national reconciliation.
First of all, the political parties must start to recognise that no one is in command over the Brexit process. No one in Parliament or among the electorate enjoys a solid majority. The old party system with polarized debates and whip voting in Parliament seems incapable of handling this complicated situation. Because this is the Parliament of the many minorities, the many Brexit solutions, but without any solid majority. There is a real risk of an damaging implosion of the party system and the trust of citizens.
So what can the Parliament of the many minorities do to overcome the stalemate?
The lesser evil principle and a new referendum
I would rather suggest another way forward: the lesser evil principle. As no one is able to present a positive and clear model with a solid majority, the Parliament as soon as possible should hold a new round of indicative votes to find out which Brexit models are supported by the largest minorities in Parliament.
May should also be allowed to present her original deal once more in the new context. Maybe 4 is her lucky number.
After Parliament has decided which two or three Brexit solutions are the lesser evils, they should be put on the ballot paper in a new national referendum, where the electorate gets the opportunity to decide which kind of Brexit they actually prefer. In order to avoid future accusations from hard leavers on a historic betrayal of the elites, the default option – a no deal Brexit should also be on the ballot paper.
It is a way to give space to the benefit of the doubt, while at the same time giving the hard Brexiteers a fair chance to fight their cause. All parties must then respect the outcome of the national referendum, whatever the result will be.
The referendum could be organised in two rounds, and if no one is commanding a majority in the first round, then the two most preferred options compete in a second referendum to find a winner.
It is important that the winner gets a qualified majority. It is crucial that the winning option gets a qualified majority of at least 60 per cents, a substantially higher number than in the 2016-referendum, in order to strengthen the legitimacy of the referendum.
The time of thin majorities must end when it comes to holding popular referenda on topics of national interest, especially when the burden must be shouldered by generations of citizens.
Multiple choice for minorities
Looking at the results of the indicative votes and reflection on the recent extra support for May´s deal, I would expect three possible alternatives could make it to the ballot paper: Customs Union, May's deal, and no deal.
The beauty of the Customs Union proposal is that it could easily be adapted as an add-on to May’s deal (the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU). If Parliament decides to include a fourth option, for instance the cross-party Common Market 2.0 model on the ballot paper, it would indeed be a referendum with four clear Brexit alternatives defined by Parliament.
If a solid majority of Parliament agrees to such a proceeding then the British people will have a fair and second chance of deciding on the kind of Brexit for UK. It will not be against the nature of the outcome in the June 2016 referendum, but it gives the people the opportunity to decide how to translate it into practice.
Time is very limited and the Prime Minister has to inform the European Council at the summit on April 10th on a feasible way forward commanding a solid majority in Parliament. The abovementioned proposal could deliver something credible to ensure a further extension of article 50. Does the solution include a clear time-schedule for the new referendum on the different Brexit models then it must be an acceptable solution, also for EU27 leaders at the summit.
The need for flexibility
At best the national deliberation process could be finalised before June 30, which would demand extraordinary efforts by all parties to speed up the formal procedures as much as possible.
In any case the British government should send a letter to the European Council on behalf of the Parliament to inform the EU Heads of States that the UK does not intend to hold European Parliament elections in May.
Before the extraordinary EU-summit a majority of the House of Commons must confirm their will to respect the referendum result, so EU27 also can proceed with certainty. If the final UK referendum cannot be celebrated before June 30 but is delayed, then the EU should unilaterally allow the UK to get an intermediary transition agreement until the referendum date.
Such a time-limited bridge would ensure UK business as usual with the EU and the single market. But without any political rights whatsoever.
It is crucial in this fragile moment of history to show flexibility and with mutual respect find some common ground. All options come with downsides, so the Parliament should use the lesser evil principle to minimize the differences and put those forward to the people in a new national referendum with multiple choices. Move out of the trenches and seek acceptable democratic compromises on the procedure of decision making.
Hopefully future conflicts and misunderstandings can be avoided this way. It you can´t find an intelligent way forward, there might be no other option than to try out the no deal and jump out from the cliff edge. If you later regret then please come back and ask for a membership of The European Union.
We will miss you. Until then: Have a nice one.
Tænketanken EUROPA indtager ikke holdninger som organisation. Denne tekst repræsenterer alene – som alle udgivelser fra Tænketanken EUROPA – forfatterens/forfatternes betragtninger.