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Interaction of referendum with negotiations
03 Feb, 2018

Leavers are wrong: a commitment to hold a referendum would not undercut the negotiators

Leavers hold that if the EU know that we will reconsider Brexit then they will set very harsh terms in order to make people feel that they have to stay in the EU to survive. Former senior civil servant and London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg finds this argument bizarre.

First, the Government and some Leave campaigners have told us that we can or should just be off with no deal. The hardest possible Brexit. So what could the EU do that would be worse than that?

Second, why would the EU wish to score an own goal? If you wish someone to go into a business or social partnership with you then you put on your best behaviour. You do not hit them over the head. People leave nasty partners, they do not fly into their arms.

Third, the EU is not like that. Sure, the negotiators are human and will feel hurt and rejected. But they are professionals. They will wish to create a new relationship that works for both sides – even though it cannot work as well as EU membership does. They will of course reject Boris’ and Keir’s have-my-cake-and-eat-it nonsense – but that is hardly being harsh. The EU will stick to their principles. If that seems harsh to Brexiteers it is because they have never understood that the Europeans actually believe in all this stuff about the EU supporting peace and friendship.

Fourth, Leavers wildly overstate the ability of the EU to calibrate an agreement that is just harsh enough to make people wish to stay in the EU but not so harsh as to make people wish to leave.

Finally, there is the separate argument that having a time-table by when the referendum must happen will weaken the government’s negotiation because the key terms will need to be fixed by then. Well, there is a time-table already – the two year limit of Article 50. The plans for a five month ratification period provide enough time for a referendum.

Not convinced? The always interesting QC Jolyon Maugham adduces some additional points in his blog of 6 January 2018.

The case for the referendum stands: a vote on an idea – as in 2016 - is a mandate to develop the idea into a plan. Once the plan is there the mandate expires. We need a referendum on the terms to give the electorate the final say. David Davis would agree – at any rate the Davis of 2002 when he was still a campaigner for fair processes and civil liberty and argued that for a referendum to be fair the people needed to know exactly what they were voting on.