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…