Big Ben. Yui Mok/Press Association. All rights reserved.
Yanis Varoufakis is one of the few intellectuals in Europe who has both the ability to think outside the box and the audacity to confront us with uncomfortable truths. This is why, before challenging one aspect of his reasoning on Brexit, I want to pay tribute to the coherence of his stance, powerfully expressed by his latest piece in the New Statesman. As he puts it : “Britain is teetering on a knife’s edge: about to crash out of, or back into, the European Union” where “either outcome would represent a defeat for democracy in the UK and in the EU.” While he joins many progressives in denouncing the economic and political risk of a calamitous no deal Brexit on March 29, he is among the few on the Left who address the great risk that by stopping Brexit trust in democracy would be undermined. I think he is right.
Yes, a unilateral revocation of article 50 is technically possible, as clarified by the EU Court of Justice and advocated by many, including former Prime Minister John Major. But how would it be democratically justifiable? Anyone who thinks that Brexit can simply be annulled with such a magic wand needs to recognise the sense of betrayal that many Leave voters would inevitably feel. In fact, neither crashing out nor crashing back into the EU are viable options for democrats, despite momentous support from two entrenched fronts.
Varoufakis is also right in warning against the risks of a quick referendum between May’s botched deal and an option to remain. Not only is there no agreement in Parliament over when and how to have it, but such a “People’s Vote” would also be met with significant opposition in the country, both from “no deal” supporters and from many who fear a resurgence of the toxic divisions that accompanied the 2016 referendum. To a large extent, Britain is not ready to decide what to make of Brexit and it instead needs a People’s Debate on the many interconnected crises that Brexit itself has revealed.
It was precisely for the depth of this rift between these entrenched fronts and the virulence of the debate among them that last September I set up a campaign to Take a Break from Brexit by means of a significant extension of the Brexit deadline set by article 50. I did so together with many friends who, like myself, are members of DiEM25, the pan-European movement founded by Varoufakis in 2016 to democratise the European Union.
We recognised then that an extension is our only option if we want both to respect the 2016 referendum and offer an alternative to the choice between a catastrophic no deal and the toxic deal that Theresa May has forced on the country. The two months left before March 29, 2019 are not enough – either for this government to negotiate a new deal (which it does not want anyway) or to elect a new government with a clear mandate from a General Election.
This is where my disagreement with Varoufakis begins. In his article he opposes an extension as he believes this would only buy Theresa May more time. But this would only happen in case of an extension limited to a few weeks. More than a 100 Tory MPs have rejected her deal and most of them are campaigning for a no deal outcome. All the hard line brexiteers are clear they expect Brexit to be delivered this March and a majority of conservative members support this view. There is no way the government could retain its slim majority of a dozen MPs if Parliament voted to extend the deadline by several months. Delivering Brexit on March 2019 is Theresa May’s tenure. Failing to do so will be its end.
But how significant should this extension be to allow for real listening, reconciliation and compromise? Varoufakis is right to remind us that an extension does not cancel the deadline. Which is why an extension should be as long as possible, as our campaign is demanding. The reason is that the deadline of article 50 is not the date when Brexit must be delivered. It just sets the window allowed for negotiation. Article 50 allows Britain to exit at any point during that window as long as a withdrawal agreement with a certain exit date is approved. So, this date of departure could be either before or after the new deadline set by the extension. An extension, in other words, does not set the Brexit date, it just removes the pressure from Parliament to vote for an agreement before they actually support it.
Pushing away this deadline, which is effectively pointing a gun at the heads of the people of Britain, is extremely important. All the more so as it appears to control the entire political dynamics. Since the day after the referendum the political establishment has been captured by a rush to deliver on a far-too-ill-defined will of the people. Leavers in favour of a no deal Brexit repeat obsessively “Out, now” refusing to acknowledge the possible consequences. Remainers, meanwhile, work around complex timetables to rush through a second referendum while no one is clear on how to bring this about. But if Article 50 is the White Rabbit of British politics, there’s no sign of a Mary Poppins ready to pause time and bring some order. There is, in fact, utter confusion and division at all levels.
The reality is that everyone who believes that the rift in the country can be healed in a few weeks or even months is deeply delusional. If a government entirely devoted to delivering Brexit failed to do so in two years, how can we expect a solution with just a few more months, as in Yvette Cooper’s amendment? How can we hope to find a compromise between those who do not want Brexit at all and those that want an extreme version of it in the few weeks that would be gained to organise the national citizens assembly proposed by Compass and some Labour MPs? No, if we are to get an extension, we should agree with another former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown: we need at least one year.
Some, including Varoufakis, repeat UK and EU concerns that such an extension would force British citizens to vote in the upcoming European Elections. How so? If an extension is indeed granted and therefore Britain is still in the EU in May 2019, it would be up to each individual citizen to decide whether and how to engage in such elections. Voting is a free choice. Can we really be so afraid of such democratic choices as to block a UK-wide debate – the only sensible solution to a constitutional crisis? In terms of the wider debate, doesn’t it in fact make sense that UK representatives in Brussels are renewed before the European Parliament discusses the Brexit deal, as the current MEPs were elected in 2014, when nobody knew what Brexit meant?
Britain is facing the most dramatic crisis of its democratic history. The entire United Kingdom is embittered, frustrated and divided and threatening to fall apart. There are no “emergency powers” in Brussels to help us see this through. Only time and democracy can heal the rifts. It is up to us to ask for it.