Brexit can’t escape history. That’s why it’s bound to fail
Local MPs in EU member states have a track record of helping reverse voters’ democratic decisions
A golden rule of politics is always to listen to my friend Daniel.
The night of the UK referendum on whether or not to leave the EU, as the results came in, my old comrade was both upbeat and realistic. “It’s a great victory,” he said, “but you realise they’ll never let it happen.”
In retrospect not only was he probably right, but this was obvious. As outrageous as overturning Britain’s referendum result might seem, it’s the historical norm.
“They” always get their way in the end, and when I write “they” I refer not just to the EU but also to national governments who have worked to override several democratic decisions of their own populations.
Since Maastricht (and excluding Brexit), the EU has been beaten in a member state referendum nine times. In every single instance, the result has either been explicitly reversed, circumvented or fudged.
In 1992, the Danes voted against Maastricht; their government secured opt-outs and, in 1993, the public backed the treaty on a second referendum (in 2015, the country voted to keep a justice and home affairs opt-out, but the legislature voted for continued co-operation with Europol anyway).
In 2001, the Irish rejected the Nice Treaty; a year later, after adding caveats, they gave it the nod.
In 2005, France and the Netherlands voted down the EU constitution (a referendum the British were promised but never had); the EU repackaged the constitution as the Lisbon Treaty and carried on merrily.
The Irish said no to Lisbon in 2008, but affirmed it after a rethink in 2009.
Local politicians have been instrumental to these reversals.
The most dramatic example was the 2015 referendum, when the Greeks rejected bailout conditions during the debt crisis.
Days later, the prime minister signed off on the austerity package he had campaigned against.
A rather insidious case was a 2016 plebiscite against an association agreement between the EU and Ukraine: 61% of Dutch voters said no. Roughly a year later, their parliament voted the agreement through, and the lower house voted earlier this year to ban advisory referendums altogether.
One rare instance of a member state sponsoring a successful referendum contra EU policy was a Hungarian vote against migrant quotas in 2016. Turnout was too low to have an effect.
There’s a pattern here. The population of a member state turns ugly; Brussels negotiates; the national parties rally to the EU’s position, the revolution is cancelled in a flurry of semantics and special arrangements.
The EU has survived despite all of its inherent contradictions because it has an instinct for self-preservation: consider the unity that the 27 has, up until now at least, shown in talks with Britain.
And while the EU has expanded its responsibilities and concentrated power, national institutions have withered. Briain’s own parliament proves it.
Leavers voted to give control back to the parliament, only to discover MPs either don’t want it or don’t know how to exercise it.
There are lots of complicated reasons for this, but a very important factor is the long-term effect of outsourcing government: Brexit has exposed how much of British law does originate from the continent.
Then there’s the synthesis between the EU’s goals and the outlook and ambitions of UK’s political class.
Almost everyone in parliament wants the trading status quo with the EU; they welcome the move towards security co-operation; they fear what they interpret as parochial British nationalism; and free movement provides both the building blocks of multiculturalism and cheap labour.
The EU is not the Soviet-era throwback that many Brexiteers claim; it is very much the direction of travel, the terminus of pan-European bureaucratic liberalism.
If Britain’s increasingly mad-looking prime minister cannot bring herself to endorse Brexit, even as she claims to be implementing it, it’s probably because the EU fits with her own social and economic goals. It’s the world as she wants it.
Therefore, it should have been predictable the day after the referendum that the British political class would do what politicians have done across Europe and either stop Brexit, prepare the rationale for a second referendum or move Brexit towards something that looks suspiciously like staying in the EU.
The full decline of UK MPs became clear to me during the preposterous indicative votes.
On March 27, with only four hours scheduled to agree on an alternative to Brexit, Daniel Zeichner, the MP for Cambridge, used the time allotted to points of order to put on record the precise figure of new bus routes.
Up to 20 minutes were also reserved for a debate about banning sky lanterns.
In this context, the insistence of some Leavers – including me in the past – that Brexit is inevitable misses the forces arranged against it, which amount, if not to an outright conspiracy, then to a Swiftian “confederacy of dunces”.
Parliament is not just generally opposed to Brexit but perhaps incapable of it, and is looking for a way out.
MPs do not take sovereignty seriously any more. They’re not very serious, full stop.
– Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)