Will there be a second Brexit referendum?

August 20, 2018 16:53
A second referendum on Brexit seems unlikely at the moment. But who can predict what will happen in the next seven months? Photo: Reuters

When Britons voted in the EU referendum in June 2016, the northeastern city of Sunderland was the first to declare support for Brexit, with 61.3 percent in favor and 38.7 percent against. Now, with only seven months to go before the divorce at the end of March, people there have changed their mind – a majority want to stay.

“Our biggest factory is Nissan. It employs 7,000 people and produces 500,000 cars a year,” said Neil Sinclair, a businessman in the city. “It exports 80 percent of them to Europe and buys a large proportion of parts from there, on a ‘just-in-time’ basis. Delays to these supplies and to exports would be very serious. People did not know what they were voting for.”

It is this argument that is fuelling demands for a second referendum before Britain finally leaves the European Union.

“It is becoming clear there is no vision for Brexit and the politicians have made a mess of it,” Julian Dunkerton, co-founder of the Superdry fashion chain, wrote in the Sunday Times newspaper. He has just made a record 1 million pound donation to People’s Vote, a campaign group pushing for a referendum.

“People are starting to realise that leaving the EU is going to be a ‘disaster’. I have a good instinct for when a mood is going to change and we are in one of those moments now,” he wrote.

People’s Vote was launched in London in April this year. On June 23, the second anniversary of the referendum, it held a march through central London that attracted 100,000 people, including Members of Parliament from three parties.

In an editorial on July 24, the Independent newspaper called for a second referendum. Last Saturday, hundreds of protesters in Edinburgh marched to demand a second referendum.

Dunkerton and others argue that, in the June 2016 vote, people had incomplete and inaccurate information on what Brexit would actually involve and that the Leave campaign lied and made false promises.

Officially, the Conservative government and opposition Labour Party are against a second referendum. But Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has never ruled out such a vote. More than 4,000 members of Momentum, a campaign group that supports Corbyn, have signed a petition backing such a referendum.

If it were held, it would be after the government had completed its negotiations with the European Union. Voters would be asked to approve or not the terms of the withdrawal agreement. The government is due to complete the negotiations and present the agreement to Parliament in October, or December at the latest.

Prime Minister Theresa May says “Brexit means Brexit” and there is no need for a second referendum. She says that the British public has spoken and it is time to implement their wishes. The possibility of one weakens her negotiating hand with Brussels, which has everything to gain from such a vote.

May’s own party is split down the middle. The pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG), which includes 60 Conservative members of Parliament, is satisfied with a "no-deal" outcome. Under this, all imported goods from the EU would be subject to World Trade Organization tariffs.

“A WTO Brexit is good Brexit,” said MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, a prominent ERG member. “It is a clear Brexit. We are in control of our laws, our money and our borders on day one. Being a third country is great. It’s independence, it’s liberty and it’s not being shacked to the failing European Union’s economic model.”

On Sunday May’s task was further complicated by an announcement from Nigel Farrage, former leader of the UK Independence Party, that he would return to politics in order to torpedo May’s proposed agreement with the EU.

Farrage led the Brexit campaign ahead of the referendum in 2016. He is eloquent, popular and unhindered by belonging to a political party. He called May’s proposed agreement a "betrayal".

At this moment, a second referendum seems unlikely. But no-one can predict what will happen in the next seven months. If the British Parliament cannot approve the final agreement with the EU, a referendum would be one way to settle the issue.

No wonder so many British people curse former Prime Minister David Cameron for organizing the first one.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.