A majority of voters in the referendum issued a clear instruction: “leave the EU”. The problem, however, is that “leaving the EU” could mean anything from Little Englander isolationism to “Brexit in name only”, retaining EU regulation, budget contributions and freedom of movement without formal EU membership. There is no clarity on what “leave the EU” actually means because the referendum was a democratic moment, not a democratic movement. Just as Remainers offered no positive vision of the EU, so Leave campaigners failed to offer a compelling, detailed vision of a post-Brexit Britain, relying instead on fearmongering and dubious spending commitments. They have not emerged as a triumphant, coherent force leading Britain towards a clearly specified destination; instead, they promptly imploded.
This matters because, when Article 50 is invoked, someone must instruct Britain’s negotiators what to actually bargain for. This is how international negotiations work: political leaders instruct technocrats on the broad objectives and “red lines”, then leave them to work out the details. At present, the task of defining Britain’s objectives falls entirely to an unelected prime minister and a handful of Tory ministers.
If Article 50 were to be invoked tomorrow, as some demand, what would their instructions be? Given the lack of any coherent plan among Leavers, one possibility is that we blunder in with poorly defined or impossible objectives, emerging with an extremely poor deal. Otherwise, given the risk aversion and pro-EU sentiment of the British establishment, the default position is likely to be one that safeguards as much of the status quo as possible. It is also likely to be strongly influenced by powerful corporate interests like the financial sector. They understand that everything is potentially up for grabs and have already begun lobbying government to ensure their interests shape Britain’s negotiating strategy. The risk, then, is an outcome of “Brexit in name only” – which is not what a majority of Leave voters wanted.
Some nonetheless suggest that we could mobilise to influence this process once it has begun. This betrays ignorance of the Article 50 process and the realpolitik of international negotiations. Firstly, when Article 50 is invoked, a two-year clock starts ticking down: after that, Britain is out. Britain’s bargaining power will diminish with every day that passes, because of the necessity of reaching a deal before that deadline to avoid the economic chaos that would otherwise result. If the government radically changes its negotiating objectives mid-way through, that halves the time available, vastly reducing Britain’s leverage. Any government would strenuously avoid this, making massive popular mobilisation necessary to force its hand.
Secondly, unless tremendous popular pressure is brought to bear to change the negotiating format, which seems unlikely, the Brexit talks will be virtually impervious to popular control and accountability. Brexit minister David Davis will not sit around a table with his counterparts from the 27 other member-states, each representing their own publics – that is not how EU negotiations work. Instead, British technocrats – their instructions in hand – will negotiate with EU technocrats with their own instructions, in secret, with no democratic oversight. Davis could only be held to account and prevented from “fudging” the outcome if there existed a clearly defined set of objectives against which the public could judge him. Currently, no such objectives exist.
Thirdly, if Article 50 were invoked tomorrow, the EU negotiating team would likely be led by Eurocrats hostile to British interests. The EU itself is in some disarray following the vote, but a spiteful faction of committed federalists – led by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, EU parliamentarians like Guy Verhofstadt – is already demanding that Britain be “punished” to deter further defections. The Commission and the Council are currently struggling over who gets to lead the negotiations, with Juncker pre-emptorily appointing Michel Barnier as chief negotiator. But importantly, they are united in demanding that Article 50 be invoked without delay – because this empowers them. This faction wants to shore up the EU project, and it lives and dies by the EU rulebook – which states that Britain must first exit the EU, and only then may negotiate a new trade deal. If this faction dominates proceedings, Britain will find it much harder to get a good deal.
Conversely, by delaying Article 50, May buys time to court the leaders of member-states, many of whom are more pragmatic. They recognise their own economic interests are best served by pragmatism and parallel deals, not spite and strict rule adherence. Britain’s best hope for a good deal is that these political leaders are persuaded to instruct the EU negotiating team to follow these national interests, not their own priorities. Inter-state consultations also allow Britain to develop a more realistic approach and find ways to leverage divisions among member-states to its own advantage.
Delaying Article 50 categorically does not mean that citizens should simply get back in their box, and leave matters to the experts. On the contrary, it is essential to harness and expand the democratic moment. The sense of energy and potential generated by the referendum needs to be channelled into developing concrete demands for the Brexit negotiations and insisting that political leaders represent our interests. This is not a step back from a democratic demand, but a step forward to make more, and more concrete, demands.
This is difficult precisely because of what the EU has always represented and entrenched: the longstanding crisis of representative democracy. Ideally, political leaders would now engage the public in concrete discussions of what they want post-Brexit Britain to look like, through grassroots organisations, civic associations, mass meetings and so on. Ideally, parties would turn these demands into concrete platforms and allow the public to vote on them, with a general election determining who leads the Brexit talks and on what terms. This only seems unlikely because representative institutions have crumbled over the last three decades. Parties have detached from their social bases and retreated into the state. Political elites develop policy platforms not by consulting the people they supposedly represent, but through consulting one another, not least through the EU.
This decay is not something easily reversed – but it is essential to try. Citizens should be demanding that parties return to their basic function of representing social groups’ interests. They should also be using every social, political, civic and economic organisation at their disposal to make concrete demands of the government. Universities, hi-tech businesses and the City of London are already doing this – citizens must follow suit.
A good example of a concrete popular demand was the petition demanding that EU nationals in Britain would have their residency rights protected. Despite anti-immigration sentiment, according to opinion polls, 84% of the public back this position, and this has quickly forced the government to include this as a negotiating principle.
This process of organising, formulating demands and insisting that the government represent our interests cannot be avoided if the people are to have any influence over the Brexit negotiations. It would be necessary if Article 50 were invoked tomorrow, or next year, and there is no reason think it would be any easier under either scenario. A short delay in invoking it buys time for the uphill struggle of organising. It prevents the initiative passing immediately to the technocrats on either side, who would likely define objectives conservatively and operate with minimal popular oversight. The only way to hold the British government accountable for the outcome is for the public to do everything it can to shape the UK’s negotiating objectives, then hold their feet firmly to the fire.
This post is based on remarks by Lee Jones at the Invoke Democracy Now meeting in Brixton on 28 June.