British EU Refurendum — Enfranchisment
Now that the polls are closed1, we're all winding down from the saturation of EU referendum spiel: it's time for me to come out of the wood work and give an opinion on the matter. I'd like to take a slightly different tack to most people2by discussing some of the legal scope of the vote today, and from there discuss what I feel was a flaw in the campaign setup, and make a case for why some of us should not have voted today.
On Leaving Legalities
The process of any state leaving the EU is going to be difficult and convoluted; we're pulling a complicated nation state out from a complicated multi-state system. We will want to do this in a multilateral manner, and negotiate our new position for trade (and the like) in the same process. To add to that, I am not aware of any precedents, so we have no framework to work from when figuring out what will be negotiated when.
People following the campaign will have noticed that the direct results of an out vote are poorly known, which should seem concerning as the vote has happened. The main point in the “well, how would this all work?” line of discussion is Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty3. This is the source of the two-year limit that has been mentioned a lot. You can also read a European Parliament briefing on it4 which is on my reading list, so I will not comment on here. The Vote Leave campaign says there are other options to leave 5, which has been disputed 6. However, as law and procedure at a state level has a very limited range of higher authorities to go to, if a state wants to do something, it is rather hard to stop it doing so78. As such, I'm sure we could find a unilateral solution to leaving as well if it was required.
In this sovereign state9, the government of the state has placed itself in a position in which it makes and enforces the laws, and in return permits the people who fall into its system to vote who is in that governmentCitation Needed. Unsurprisingly a number of voices have come up arguing that this vote should have been one for the government itself, including the much shared article by David Mitchell11 in which he quotes Richard Dawkins12:
It is an outrage that people as ignorant as me are being asked to vote. This is a complicated matter of economics, politics, history [...]
Of course, Dawkins does not seem to realise that parliament will have the final say on the matter — the vote is non-binding1314, and there is no requirement to invoke article 50 or any other measure as a result of today's vote. Instead, the entire process boils down to a giant formalised opinion poll, where we have been encouraged15 to vote for black or white, and either press or prevent others from pressing a giant red button.
I'm not going to go too far into the implications of what will happen based on various possible results from the vote, but as no triggers are in place, the turnout may become a major point of contention — a close result with a low turn out might be considered and something which can be entirely ignored.
The referendum was promised to voters by parties at the last UK general election as a way of preventing more voters and candidates defecting to UKIP, and probably was never high on the Conservative's front bench list of prioritiesCitation Needed. It has been used to make a lot of political capital, push a few agenda and buttons, and has generally been one of my least favourite parts of the last few years of partially watching British politics.
As such, I think the decision to have two campaign groups was the wrong one. The ballot paper gave the options of in or out, but there is always a third option — abstention. Had the campaigns been fought differently, I might have abstained. Had the campaigns been less forthright, I might have tried encouraging more people to abstain from this vote. Because, when it comes down to it, we really don't know what's going on.
I would even go as far as to suggest that many of the arguments, debates and social media posts could happily be replaced with the below clip, substituting “Muslims” with “European Union Membership”.
That is not to say that no-one knows about Europe, or that no-one is affected. But, I suspect that for the vast majority of people who voted today, they don't have a clear understanding of what is going on, and no reason for their opinions except that which has been placed by the media in the past few weeks. And that is a major problem as I see it: the vote may just be an echo of politcal rhetoric, or of deep set opinion, or of actually informed opinion, but we have no way to tell the three apart.
My ideal solution to this would be to have a referendum with not campaigning, where all statements which went beyond acknowledging the existence of the vote would be forbidden under purdah-like rules, and presenting any argument for or against would be right out. Then you would get a better representation of people who have the interest to care enough to vote without the input of the campaign. However, this is an unrealistic desire to achieve17, so a more practical solution must be found. There are two I would suggest, both of which boil down to the same idea of trying to separate out Europhiles from those voting for the status quo by having a third campaigning group.
This third official campaigning group which would by pushing people towards not caring too much, could have two different goals -- encouraging people not to turn up to the vote at all, or to turn up and spoil their ballots (or possibly pick a third option). This would represent to the government that these people are happy for the government to proceed as it sees fit, rather than to have the upcoming issues we will likely face after the format of vote we have just had.
The largest issue I really have, and what all of this is a half-hearted side-on attempt to address is the toxic nature of what we've undertaken. Short of a landslide majority, this debate isn't over, and the losing side is going to regroup and try and keep on fighting. If we vote to remain, the majority of MPs will be on the losing side, and I doubt they'll all take it quietly. If we vote to leave, UKIP is not just going to disband, or abandon their raison d'etre.
So much energy has been poured into this the last few weeks, on so many false or misunderstood premises, some of them fundamental such as whether the vote means we leave right away. And right now I'm not sure how well our government can heal before it has to do it all again internally.
- 1 ↑ Yes, I voted. No, I'm not going to say which way. I've tried to remove my personal bias for the outcome from this article as well, but I'm not sure how well that's gone.
- 2 ↑ Plus, it is a bit late for me to try campaigning.
- 3 ↑ http://www.lisbon-treaty.org/wcm/the-lisbon-treaty/treaty-on-European-union-and-comments/title-6-final-provisions/137-article-50.html
- 4 ↑ “Article 50 TEU: Withdrawal of a Member State from the EU” Briefing Feb 2016 http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2016/577971/EPRS_BRI(2016)577971_EN.pdf
- 5 ↑ http://www.voteleavetakecontrol.org/a_framework_for_taking_back_control_and_establishing_a_new_uk_eu_deal_after_23_june
- 6 ↑ http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/article-50-is-only-credible-way-for-brexit-despite-claims-by-vote-leave-says-leading-eu-law-expert
- 7 ↑ Citation: world politics and wars for the last eternity.
- 8 ↑ As I have noted a lot in other writing, “international law isn't”.
- 9 ↑ Yes, we are by most reasonable definitions sovereign, despite the claims of being an European puppet.
- 10 ↑ Citation Needed
- 11 ↑ https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/may/29/eu-referendum-parliament-leaders-david-cameron-david-mitchell
- 12 ↑ http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/dawkins-speaks-out/news-story/3d252a2a2a24702b45092626f1ef60b3
- 13 ↑ http://uk.businessinsider.com/green-eu-referendum-not-legally-binding-brexit-2016-6
- 14 ↑ http://uk.businessinsider.com/eu-referendum-interview-peter-catterall-on-eu-brexit-2016-6
- 15 ↑ I debated using the word ‘coerced’ here, given the tone of the campaigns.
- 16 ↑ Citation Needed
- 17 ↑ and comes closer to the idea of thought police than I really would like.