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How fixed will the terms be?
24 Feb, 2018

Any point in voting in the referendum on the terms?

When arguing for the referendum on the terms we need to distinguish between agreements that are relatively fixed and those that are more open to change. London4Europe Committee member and former senior civil servant Michael Romberg sets out the difference.

Keir Starmer argues against a referendum on the terms in part on technical grounds: that there will not be anything that people can really vote on. An earlier post addressed the issue of whether the terms would be clear enough for a vote. Now let’s look at how decided things will be.

We are of course talking about an agreement amongst people, not the laws of physics. Agreements can always be changed. The point is that agreements are with another party. Unilateral abrogation comes with real costs. So we need to calibrate how keen the other side will be to engage with us, as well as our own desires for change.

Key terms

In addition to the withdrawal and transition agreements, under Article 50 there is to be a Framework for the Future Relationship. I would expect the Framework Agreement to include decisions like:

  • single market membership or outsider;
  • basis of access for financial services and other key industries;
  • in or out of the Customs Union/ alternative Customs Union model;
  • aspiration for a trade agreement;
  • freedom of movement or controls;
  • budget contribution – roughly how much or none.

We should regard these as fixed in the sense that both the EU and the UK would commit themselves to implement them if we went to Brexit; once agreed, they could not be changed unilaterally; and the appetite on the side of the EU for an early reopening is unlikely to be high as they will wish to close the book on Brexit and get back to their other more pressing concerns.

Minor terms

There would also be no end of minor issues. Some might be resolved early, but many will still be being discussed, or discussions have yet to start, or they will only have had an interim resolution at the time of Brexit. The actual resolution will take many years.

Although some will be big issues for particular people and industries, as a general statement these should be disregarded by voters when considering the referendum question – except in the sense that they should consider whether faffing about with these issues is what they want Government and Parliament to be doing for the next few years.

Policies that can be changed

Then the government will no doubt wish to announce all sorts of domestic policies. Let’s say we have full control over EU immigration with no treaty obligations. The government could announce that it will let in NNN EU immigrants each year. That policy of course could be changed by the next government.

Or it could say that it will replace EU labour market or environmental rules by UK rules that offer more/ less/ different/ just the same protection. That too is something that can be changed at the next election.

And then there are whatever domestic arrangements replace the CAP – where Michael Gove is announcing new arrangements that are, however, broadly in line with the direction of travel of CAP reform.

So these promises too should be disregarded – except in the sense that they indicate areas where we will continue to be in step with the EU or where we will diverge in substance as well as in rhetoric.

Party politics

Labour may feel that they are onto a winner with a line that says Brexit must happen and we will negotiate it better. They will therefore have an incentive to say that the terms are very vague, that everything is to play for and that people should vote Labour for a better Brexit.

We must keep on reminding people that the real choice is Brexit/ Remain, not unimportant variants of Brexit. Tony Blair wrote compellingly about the unprincipled nature and tactical folly of Labour’s position.


We can assume that voters in the referendum on the terms will be presented with a mix: the agreed terms of Brexit, and Theresa May’s plans for using her freedom.

That means that voters (and the media) will have to draw some quite subtle distinctions and make some difficult choices. What if you want out of the EU and do not like what Theresa May would do with her freedom? What if you like the EU and also like what she would do with her freedom?

These ideas will get blurred in voters’ minds. We will not be able to prevent that entirely.

But we should try to get the government to focus in the white paper on setting out the key terms that have been agreed; setting out the areas where agreement needs to be reached and the process for doing so; listing the areas where domestic policies will be needed, but not particularly trumpeting the Government’s own policies as the sole possibility after Brexit; and making clear where domestic policy change is contingent on Brexit and where it could happen anyway.  

Finally, a key task for Opposition MPs is to ensure that the Framework Agreement for Future Relations is clear enough to expose what the Government is trying to do and to the electorate to understand what it means. Tony Blair expresses it as “Make Brexit the Tory Brexit. Make them own it 100%.”. Labour should certainly not continue to be less democratic than David Davis, who in 2002 said “For referendums to be fair and compatible with our parliamentary process, we need the electors to be as well informed as possible and to know exactly what they are voting for.”. We must push opposition MPs, in particular Keir Starmer, to press the Government hard on that.