Can Europe Make It?

A People’s Vote without a People’s Debate won’t bring about Another Europe

An open letter to Another Europe Is Possible on the democratic component fatally lacking from the Brexit process hitherto.

Andrea Pisauro
21 December 2018
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Screenshot:Citizens Assembly on Brexit, Manchester, September 2017.YouTube. Fair Use.

Dear friends of Another Europe Is Possible,

When some time ago Michael Chessum, registering my skepticism about a second referendum, asked me a very fair next question “So what is DiEM25’s position on Brexit”?  –  we may not have been as clear as we are today. So I’m writing in the hope that my answer may be of interest to you and to those who follow us.

Prior to the Brexit referendum, we campaigned together to Remain in Europe to change it: a principled, articulate position which brought together the British Left and progressives throughout Europe, from John McDonnell and Caroline Lucas to Yanis Varoufakis, yourselves and ourselves.

The outcome of the Brexit referendum and the dramatic political developments which followed it, have instead created huge divisions among progressives, despite having to face in Britain the transformation of the UK Conservatives into the “Brexit means Brexit” party (a self-serving delusion presiding over a democracy-free zone process) and in the wider world, Trump and the rise of the “national international” (a coalition of dangerously anti-democratic forces).

Strategic disagreements are natural in the face of a historical strategic defeat like the referendum outcome, and the tasks of moving forwards under these conditions necessarily much more uphill. But an empowering democratic debate taking into full consideration not only the causes of the defeat, but also the opportunities that arise for a new, and maybe more profound form of political transformation, should bring us together again.

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Screenshot. Citizens Assembly on Brexit, Manchester, September 2017.I must applaud your decision to transform Another Europe is possible into a member-led democratic organisation and the timing of your decision. Never before has the task to democratize every level of British politics been more urgent or the challenge to create inclusive dialogue around the country more pressing. So I would like to wish you an excellent launch for this exciting new journey that you are on.

I need also to congratulate you on your brilliant work to expose the contradictions of Brexit within the British Left. DiEM25 dedicated every sinew we possessed at the time of the referendum to campaigning with you against Brexit but you have been able to transform what was once the fairly complex argument of a vocal fringe (“stay in Europe to change it” or as Yanis Varoufakis used to put it “in the EU against this EU”) into a hegemonising message at the 2018 Labour conference, with the ubiquitous “Love Corbyn, hate Brexit” placards shifting the internal narrative by a visible margin.

I also have to concede how important it was for you, Caroline Lucas and many others in the Left to shape from a progressive standpoint the developing debate on the ‘People’s Vote’, focusing on the backstage dealing of the government negotiating strategy and on a progressive critique of what it has so far achieved. You deserve a lot of credit for moving remainers so far on from the disastrous official remain campaign of 2016.

We all believe that the deal negotiated by Theresa May is terrible, in method and motive, in the dangers it poses to workers’ rights, environmental protections, human rights and freedom to move and for the damage it can produce to our social model. We all agree that we must work together to exert the maximum pressure towards its defeat, whenever it finally comes to Parliament.

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Screenshot: Citizens Assembly, Manchester, September 2017.But we need to be equally clear about our disagreement at this critical juncture of the roller-coaster that is the Brexit process. For us the mode of delivery of a ‘People’s Vote’ cannot work from a progressive perspective.

Jeremy Corbyn insists that “a People’s vote is not an option for the present”. We think he is right. To have a meaningful effect a People’s Vote, that is, any referendum on the deal with an option to remain, needs to happen well ahead of 29 March 2019, when the article 50 current deadline is bound to conclude the Brexit saga.

Considering the necessary obligations for implementing a referendum, allowing for an electoral campaign of at least one month and before that presumably organising the electoral machine, this should be announced not later than mid-January for the referendum to be held in mid March. But before such an announcement can be made, legislation must be passed both at the House of Commons and at the House of Lords and a referendum bill not yet drafted must be approved in both houses. Unfortunate as it might be, with Parliament shut down for Christmas and in the face of a looming constitutional crisis, is there any possibility that this process could be completed in less than one month?

Time of course is of the essence, and not just time to follow the rules which govern our voting system. Democracy is also about taking the time to take complex decisions without a gun to our heads.

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Screenshot: Citizens Assembly, Manchester, September 2017. YouTube. Above all it is about a meaningful debate, which gives every citizen a chance to gather all the information they need about all the viable major options currently available — at least four at the last count. It requires time for citizens to listen to each other and to persuade each other if they can. And we should give people that time. We have heard a lot about the preparations needed for businesses to adapt and for trade deals to occur, but almost nothing about the time for citizens, leavers and remainers alike to explore ‘the deal’ and all its possible alternatives. We must allow democracy the time it deserves, but time is running out very fast for a proper democratic debate, with more facts and much clearer options. Nor can we trust the government to take the break from Brexit that we need to stand back together, and choose our common future carefully.

More than this, a democratic decision concerning the fundamental constitutional questions raised by Brexit, requires citizens not only to choose the best answer to the question, but also to shape the debate by framing the questions themselves or, as political theorist and democracy activist Stuart White put it, in 2015: “Democratic theory says that this is a time when ‘We the people’ have a right to settle what happens precisely because what is at stake is a set of very basic questions about how we are ruled.”

A People’s Debate, properly informed and accessible, inclusive and empowering, must precede a People’s Vote if it is to be a meaningful choice. Neal Lawson and more recently Gordon Brown, recognising the limits of parliamentary decision-making, have called for a “unique consultation”, a multi-faceted process of exchange that “by opening a dialogue across the country and engaging in a constructive, outward-looking conversation about our future” might help us discover “a road back to a more cohesive country, reuniting around shared values and rediscovered common interests” (“To calm the Brexit storm, we must listen to the UK’s views again”, Financial Times,16 November, also Gordon Brown on Brexit.)

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Screenshot: Citizens Assembly, Manchester, September 2017.Without a People’s debate, a People’s vote is bound to be a rerun of the referendum binary narrative, hopefully framed in better terms (but how, while the government is run by Theresa May?), whose best possible outcome is to impose on a significant minority the 2016 status quo which was already then untenable to a significant majority.

Do we really want to offer the British people the choice to restore our old EU membership perhaps even including the detrimental changes that David Cameron negotiated in 2016, in his desperate attempt to win enough votes in June: a draconian form of “free” movement with strong limitations on access to welfare and stronger deportation powers for the UK government? Shouldn’t we be arguing for precisely the opposite line of march so that we can influence in a positive direction the Europe we want to see? Without a proper People’s Debate on immigration and all the other key issues, a People’s Vote will never bring about another Europe.

This is why DiEM25 has not signed up to a People’s Vote. We at DiEM25 believe instead that the way forward is to delay and democratise Brexit.

An original version of this article was published on Medium on December 6, 2018.

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