While folks have been quick to jump on the results of the referendum as evidence of democracy at work, (and perhaps that is partly true), a few days later we see the consequences. Economic challenges anew, social discontent in the UK (racism and xenophobia legitimated by the exit vote) and political meltdown in the UK’s parliament.
I want to focus on process. The Commission president wants the article 50 triggered essentially now. Of course, Juncker’s call is just more evidence of his fundamental autocratic ways; he did say he dislikes referenda as do I, but I suspect for him it betrays a disregard for democratic process in favour of bureaucratic expediency. Tusk says that the UK is the one that must act and the rest of the EU must wait. This shows a much more nuanced understanding of democracy and is only right.
Until the UK signals otherwise, it is still a full member of the EU within the meaning of Article 1 of the Treaty on European Union. The UK’s Commissioner was hasty in his departure, and today’s display at the European Parliament unbecoming but feeds the egos of MEPs who tear down more often than they build up.
But process matters. The UK’s Parliament must receive formally the advice it sought from the referendum, which is non-binding. Few countries would dignify the results of a referendum of this magnitude with a simple majority, but require perhaps 75% with some turnout requirement (even compulsory voting for that matter). The UK prime minister is not the government; the UK Parliament is what is sovereign, so it must actually pass a bill in Parliament and that is what can only trigger Article 50 (it may help to read the Lisbon wording).
In the UK, no parliament can bind a successor parliament; therefore, a general election would in effect return a new parliament which can simply ignore the referendum results. Indeed, such a general election would likely be fought over the terms of departure and that isi probably the right thing to do. Converting the referendum votes into constituency votes would likely lead to a minority of MPs being elected that would have supported a Leave position anyway. Given the chaos we see coupled with voter regret, it is unlikely a Leave position would be politically successful.
Furthermore, Parliament must be satisfied that the referendum actually is the will of the people. Given what has been a shambolic campaign, we now see the Leave campaign rowing back from their pledges, while much of the evidence presented by the Remain campaign is coming true. In the end the result is suspect. Granted the vote revealed underlying divisions within UK society, but that is not what the referendum was asking. Parsing the vote in those terms is disingenuous.
It is clearly not in the EU’s interests to see the UK leave, despite what appears to be the fond wishes of some authoritarians in the Commission. Indeed, the leave vote may in fact trigger the sorts of EU reform that was not possible before; nothing like having the chickens come home to roost! It would be a tragedy for the EU to lose the UK just when it would be implementing reforms that would not just reassure the UK, but also deal with the more widespread Euroskepticism and nationalist threats to European unity itself. And of course, it would be a Pyrrhic victory for the UK.
The EU needs to help the UK government chart its way through the process, to understand the process that must be followed and not hasten the UK’s demise within the EU through impatience or intemperate comments. Restraint at the political level across the EU will do more to support the UK find its way out of this mess.
The EU and UK need the outcome to be a win:win. A UK exit is not that.