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How clear will the ‘terms’ be?
27 Mar, 2017

Some hold that the agreement that will be reached by November 2018 will not be capable of a decision in a referendum because the terms of Brexit will be too vague for the electorate to sensibly reach a decision.


This line of argument holds that the agreement will cover only the divorce bill, the rights of EU/UK citizens, transitional arrangements and aspirations for the permanent agreement which would be finalized in the 2020s. For example, there might be an aim to reach a sectoral customs deal for cars.

The Terms would be Clear Enough

There are however sound arguments that the terms that will be agreed will be clear enough for the electorate to vote on them.

The Law. Article 50(2) says “… the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union”. That framework needs to be fairly meaningful and concrete to comply with the Article.

The Point of Comparison. We are looking to enable people to make a significantly better informed decision than they made in June 2016. That is a pretty low bar. Leave did not campaign on a single programme. It is clear from polling that what people want and expect from Brexit is have-our-cake-and-eat-it.  No agreed Framework will allow anyone to argue that that is what we will get.

Aspirations are meaningful. Suppose that the deal says “We will work towards a sectoral deal on the Customs Union for the [motor car] industry.”. That is pretty concrete. We don’t know whether we will get the deal or what it will be like. But it seems reasonable to suppose that we will get some sort of a deal and that it will see the [car] industry alright. So the key messages for the two sides in the campaign would be not the detailed content but the presence or absence of that or equivalent lines for key industries.

For a more complex industry like Finance, the choice of which end state is going to be aimed at should give an idea of loss of business and jobs from London, and the fiscal effects.

Similarly, we ought to get a feel for the rights of UK citizens in EU countries, the areas where we will/ will not be collaborating, a sense of the level of budget payments (however they are dressed up as something else). Where will EU regulatory arrangements apply, where will we set up regulatory arrangements that are directly equivalent (so why bother?)?

And on areas where there might be a more or less clean break with the EU – immigration say – there ought to be a plan from the Government of the regime it would be imposing.

The Overall Feel. Whatever the list of detailed commitments and aspirations – and the exclusions from the list – it will be possible to to gauge the overall feel of the agreement. Are we turning our back on the EU? Are we keeping extensive links (in which case why bother leaving?)?

No Deal. Finally, we need to remember Theresa May’s threat to crash out of the EU. The implications of that will also be pretty clear.


The meaning of the deal that is to be available in the Autumn/ Winter of 2018/19 – or the intention to leave the EU without a deal – will be much clearer than the question in June 2016 and will be clear enough to allow the electorate to make an informed choice.

We should persuade MPs to amend the “great repeal bill” in the summer of 2017 to provide for a referendum on the terms of Brexit.

By Michael Romberg, a retired senior civil servant who has worked in HM Treasury and the Home Office. On Facebook, he runs the Campaign for the Real Referendum – on the Terms of Brexit.