Both Barry Gardiner on the closed Left of British politics and Daniel Hannan on the buccaneering Right have warned against talk of a referendum on the outcome of negotiations. Both contend it weakens the UK’s negotiating position.
This is how their argument goes.
The EU would rather we stayed – we are significant net contributors to its budget after all – and so they will offer us a bad deal if a referendum is on offer. By doing so – by giving the electorate a choice between a bad deal and remaining – they hope to persuade the electorate to choose to Remain. And to get what they want.
But is this analysis right? Does it bear examination?
Here are six reasons why it seems to me it does not.
1. The real negotiations will happen after any referendum
We are contemplating a referendum before we leave the EU. Barring some change in direction, we will leave the EU at the end of March 2019. What we presently envisage is that, by that date, we will have agreed, at most, the broad outlines of a deal. This is why we need a transitional period.
The consequence of this is that the actual negotiating will take place after the referendum. It can’t sensibly be argued that the EU would change its negotiating stance to influence the result of a referendum that had already taken place.
2. The EU has already made its position clear
The contours of the outcome of the negotiations are already clear. They flow from the choices that Theresa May has already made – to leave the customs union and the single market. And from the EU’s position that the four freedoms are indivisible and that (as is logically self-evident) a country outside the EU, which does not contribute to the EU’s budget, and which is not bound by EU rules, will not enjoy the advantages of EU membership.
This matters because the logic of the argument that the referendum would influence the EU’s negotiating stance is that the EU would offer a worse deal so that voters rejected it and the UK remained in the EU. But voters are likely already to know enough about the shape of our future relationship with the EU to know whether they want it or not.
They now, already, for example, that Brexit will mean an end to EU citizens having the right to live and work in the UK. But they also know that it will mean an end to UK citizens having the right to live and work in the EU. And that it will mean a worse trading relationship with the EU. And that there is no sign of significant extra spending for the NHS.
As to the detail that remains to be negotiated, it is precisely that: detail. Very few voters will be influenced by the precise nature of the non-tariff barriers between the UK and EU for widgets. And the EU’s stance on this detail is unlikely to influence voters one way or another. So why would the EU change it?
3. The EU is not stupid. It already knows where the country is.
The argument is that by calling for a second referendum you are somehow letting the EU into a secret – that a substantial part of the United Kingdom still wants to remain in the EU.
Here’s how Barry Gardiner put it (see link above):
“What that would indicate is, to our negotiating partners in the European Union is, ‘give the UK the worst possible deal and they’re more likely to stay in.’ So you would be undermining your own country’s negotiations. That’s what people who are calling for a second referendum are doing.”
But this assumes that the EU will learn something new and profoundly important – important enough to change its negotiating position – from the suggestion that we have a referendum on the final deal.
But the state of political debate in the UK is no great secret. The EU already knows a referendum is a possibility. It reads the opinion polls that show consistent majorities for remain. It knows MPs voted to amend the Repeal Bill so that Parliament must approve the deal. It knows that if Parliament is not minded to approve that deal it may well take the opportunity to put the question back to the people.
None of this is a secret to the EU. If the EU was willing and able to adjust its position to give the UK a worse deal to make it more likely for people to choose to remain it would have done that already.
4. The EU has very little room to change its negotiating position
If you’re the EU, this is already a rather complex negotiation.
It has forged a consensus between member states of what the broad parameters of what a deal will look like. And now it must maintain this consensus between the remaining member states. This is no easy task in a world in which Brexit will create, as between those member states, winners and losers. And in which, even within each member state, there are different interests to be traded off.
The EU must have regard to the interests of those who are significant exporters to the UK – and who may wish to continue trading on similar terms. And it must protect the unity of the European Union by securing that the populations of member states see a better future for themselves inside the EU than out.
It must look to the coherence of the trade agreements the EU has entered into already. And it must have regard to the precedent an agreement with the UK might set for trade agreements with bigger and prospectively more important trading partners than the UK – such as the US and China.
So the EU doesn’t actually have much room to manoeuvre to try and persuade people to vote to Remain in any subsequent negotiation.
5. The EU has little incentive to change its negotiating position
Those who support Brexit already contend that the EU is “punishing” the UK – presumably believing this will turn the electorate against the EU. By this logic, the EU, should it toughen its negotiating stance, would make a Remain vote in a referendum less likely. Indeed, by this logic, the best way for the EU to cause the electorate to vote Remain would be to soften its negotiating stance: such that calling for a referendum would strengthen our negotiating position.
Of course the force of this argument – contending that the UK is being punished for leaving the EU is a good way to persuade people we should leave the EU – is open to question. But it does demonstrate that, even were the EU considering ‘toughening’ its negotiating stance, it could not be certain that would have the effect of causing people to opt for Remain.
6. The evidence suggests the EU will not toughen its stance
There is no sign that the EU might change its position to try and persuade voters in the UK to support Remain.
Back in March 2016, Boris Johnson argued that by voting leave we might get the change to the EU we want. He said:
There is only one way to get the change we need, and that is to vote to go, because all EU history shows that they only really listen to a population when it says No.
But the EU has had ample opportunity since the Referendum to try and influence leave voters in the UK to change their minds. It could, for example, have offered some revised deal on free movement, for example, to seek to persuade leave voters to recant. But it has not.
So why would the EU toughen its stance now? If anything, as even Boris Johnson recognised, a referendum is likely to cause the EU to seek to offer concessions to the UK should we remain to cause it to do so.
We might get a better deal than is presently on the table.
Ideology – for those on the closed Left and the buccaneering right – is an easy sell. In a complex world it offers straightforward slogans. For detailed analysis it substitutes broad assertion. What use logic when you can play to prejudice.
But if you actually analyse the contention – if you really think about whether talk of a referendum weakens the prospects of a good deal – it vanishes into thin air.