Could we have a second EU referendum? What would be on the ballot? And how long would it take?by Alan Renwick / February 9, 2018 / Leave a comment
There is increasing talk of another referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. Once a Brexit deal has been agreed in the autumn, advocates say, voters should get to decide whether to accept it. Voters started the Brexit process, the argument goes, so they should determine how it ends too.
Whether we like this idea or not, it is worth thinking through what would be involved. What would the referendum actually be about? How long would it take? Is it feasible given the constraints of Article 50?
The question on the ballot paper
What would the referendum be about? The simple answer is that voters would accept or reject the deal negotiated in Brussels between the UK government and the heads of the remaining 27 EU states.
That is all very well, but what if voters rejected the deal? What would be the alternative on the ballot paper?
There are two main possibilities. Most advocates of another referendum say it should pit the deal against staying in the EU after all. They say voters should get to decide whether they really want Brexit once it is clear what Brexit actually means.
Alternatively, a referendum could allow voters to accept or reject the deal on the understanding that rejection means leaving the EU with no deal. This choice would be about the form of Brexit, not whether to do Brexit.
Government ministers say their deal is the only game in town: rejecting it would necessarily mean leaving the EU with no deal. If correct, this suggests only the second kind of referendum is feasible.
But that is wrong. Experts generally now agree that the UK can unilaterally withdraw its Article 50 notification, thereby ending the formal Brexit process, any time up to 29th March 2019. If a referendum could be held within that period, a decision not to proceed with Brexit could be implemented.
How long would a referendum take?
So is a referendum feasible within that timeframe? Very rapid referendums sometimes happen: Greece held one on a proposed bailout package within eight days in 2015; Crimea managed one on accession to Russia in ten days in 2014.
But referendums on such tight timescales are not credible. Officials cannot put in place robust voting processes, campaigners cannot organise, and voters have no chance to develop a considered view.
In fact, referendums take longer to organise well than general elections. Whereas Theresa May proposed last year’s election less than eight weeks before the vote happened, David Cameron confirmed the date of the Brexit referendum four months ahead of polling day. That was no accident. We have standard rules for elections but not for referendums, so administrators in referendums need longer to prepare. We also have existing campaign organisations—parties—so new groups don’t need to form specially.
In the UK, referendum campaigns typically focus on designated “lead” campaign groups, who have higher spending limits than others and receive state support. It takes six weeks for them to apply for designation and for the Electoral Commission to select the winners. That needs to happen far enough ahead of the vote that they can plan their campaigns knowing the resources available to them.
In fact, feedback from campaigners and administrators in 2016 suggests the four-month notice period from setting the date to polling day was the minimum that is reasonable. The Electoral Commission recommends it should be six months.
Much also has to happen before polling day is set. A referendum can be called in the UK only by an Act of Parliament. While emergency legislation is occasionally pushed through parliament in days, that is not an option for referendum legislation, as many key features of the process need detailed scrutiny. Not least, the Electoral Commission is obliged to consult on the proposed wording of the referendum question, in both English and Welsh. Quality fieldwork and analysis take time: probably closer to two months than one.
All this makes squeezing a procedurally robust referendum between a deal in October and Brexit day in March very difficult. Add to these technical requirements the politics. Having spent two years insisting the 2016 vote was decisive, the current government is vanishingly unlikely to propose another referendum. A referendum proposal would likely start gaining traction only after defeat for the Brexit deal in parliament.
A slower referendum?
So is there any scope for extending the current timescale? There are three possible routes in theory, but two of them are problematic in practice.
The first is that the UK could revoke its Article 50 notification before rather than after a referendum. That looks politically impossible: it would appear to prejudge the referendum result.
At the other extreme, the UK could leave the EU as planned in March 2019, but then hold a referendum during the transition period. On paper that might make sense: the UK would still be complying with EU rules, so nothing of substance would change. But once Brexit has happened, the UK can return to the EU only by the normal application process, and the membership terms on offer would probably be worse than today’s.
The likeliest option is a third one: the Article 50 period could be extended to give enough time for a referendum to take place. This would not be straightforward: it would require the consent of all 27 EU governments. At least so far, however, all governments have indicated they would welcome an end to Brexit if the UK chose to rethink, so that is not inconceivable.
So how likely is a second vote?
Another referendum is possible, but the route leading to it is winding: government, parliament and EU member states would have to line up in support. Most important, in the end, is public opinion.
There remain only slight hints that voters might be shifting their views away from Brexit. Unless that changes, anti-Brexit politicians will be reluctant to play the referendum card again.
They might think it wiser to seek an extension of Article 50, pursue the negotiations on future relations further, and keep the referendum option open should it prove useful further down the line.
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