A referendum binds the polity that holds it, no-one else
A common Leaver assertion against having a referendum on the terms is that the EU always rejects referenda it does not like – and that shows that it is anti-democratic and therefore we must Leave. London4Europe Committee member and former Home Office senior civil servant Michael Romberg looks at the argument.
I have already set out the position on the claim that the EU insists that countries have repeat referenda until they get the answer right. The EU does not hold referenda – countries do. That countries hold referendums on joining or leaving the EU demonstrates they are sovereign.
Mostly where a referendum has gone against the EU cause that is the end of the story – Norway’s rejection of EU membership, for example. In the few cases where there has been a further vote the question was different on the second vote because the treaty had been amended or clarified.
Indeed, however much EU institutions and member states regret Brexit and wish that it would be reversed by the UK, it should be obvious to all that the EU has not insisted that the UK re-run the 2016 referendum, even if some heads of government have said that a further vote would be desirable. It sometimes seems in the negotiations that the EU has taken the UK’s decision rather more seriously than the UK did, with Michel Barnier insisting that “Brexit means Brexit”.
But let’s look at Greece. I am not here considering the merits of the bail-out terms. I am only looking at the rôle of the referendum.
A summary of what happened: in 2015, the Greek Government was negotiating its bail-out with the Troika of European Commission, ECB and IMF. The Greek Government opposed the proposed bail-out terms. It called a referendum and urged the Greek people to reject the terms, which they did by 61:39. By the end of another week of negotiations with the Troika the Greek government had accepted bail-out conditions similar to those that had been rejected in the referendum.
The key point to be clear about is that a referendum can only bind the state that votes on it. So the Greek referendum bound the Greek State/ Government, but not anybody else.
If the UK had a referendum on whether the Swiss should provide each of us with a weekly box of chocolates, no matter how high the YES vote, it would not bind the Swiss.
If my family voted unanimously to reduce the interest rate we pay on our mortgage, it would not bind the bank to do so. People would regard as absurd any claim that it should. Yet that is what Leave voters say the Greek referendum should have done to the EU.
An aside: how long did it take
From announcement to vote the Greek referendum took nine days. I am not presenting that as a model for the UK – Brexit is too important a decision to be rushed. But if people say there is not time to have a referendum, we can be confident in our rejection.
It would probably need an extension of the Article 50 period. That would mess up the time-table for the European Parliament elections. But the EU has put contingency plans in place for the composition of the Parliament for if the UK does not in fact leave by 29 March 2019.
The Constitution Unit at UCL has written a series of recent blogs on a second referendum that are well worth reading, including this one on how long it would take to set up.
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