Reflexions on the “how to exit Brexit” debate at the Autumn Conference

As always, I quite enjoyed attending the LibDem Autumn Conference and its fringe meetings. The only suggestion about fringe meetings I would like to make (as a member of D66, 27.000 members; we’ve always had one member one vote at our halfyearly conferences) is: if it is about the three issues Social Liberals care most about: Europe, Education and the Environment, having some fringe meetings in the plenary sessions hall (or a secondary big hall, like at the back of Bournemouths BIC, where the Prospect interview with Clegg was moved to) so that every interested member gets a change of being there, should be debatable. We at D66 often hold “fringe” meetings on these three subjects in the plenary hall, also to emphasize how important these three are to us and D66 policy thinking.

I was especially fascinated by the debate inserted (by suspending Standing orders) in the plenary agenda about how we should go about realizing the “exit from Brexit”: a parliamentary procedure and debate only, or organizing a “first Referendum about the facts of Brexit” (Cable) after the deal with Barnier (and Verhofstadt!) is reached.

The Dutch have lived through two big Europeans referendum campaigns: in 2005 about the “European Constitution”, and in 2016 about the EU Association Treaty with the Ukraine. In both cases, populists from not only the Right (Wilders), but also the left (the “Socialist Party”, former Maoists who’ve moved to leftist Social Democracy) used the campaign to spread fake news and conspiracy or scare stories about the EU and its ruling elite (including Europhile parties like D66), the EMU and its Austerity dictats, and suchlike.

In the Ukraine Referendum campaign, D66 also used canvassing (a new practice in Dutch electoral campaigns) in which I took a small part. So I could fully sympathize with the speakers in the debate who didn’t want a “second Referendum about Brexit”, because it had proved nearly impossible to dispel or counter the myths and scare stories of the Brexiteers while talking to voters on their doorstep. But I nevertheless fully supported the amendment from Tom Brake MP and FPC to continue asking for that referendum. Let me explain why.

True Liberals of any hue (Social or Classical/Rightwing) are easily framed by left and right-wing Populists as “elitist”, bourgeoisie. Pro-EU-liberals are even worse in their eyes (doubly elitist, suspect). And the British Parliament (with many lost votes in many constituencies) can’t be a paragon of representative democracy, and is likely to be seen as elitist too.

When Dutch Prime minister Rutte used parliament and Brussel EU summits to insert a Dutch “clarification” appendix in the EU-Ukraine Association Treaty, to let the objections of the majority of Dutch voters who voted “no” be heard, included, many Populists rejected that as “the Elite” manoeuvring to get their way, paying only lip service to that majority. Letting only parliament change course thus is not convincing; doesn’t close the argument.

Only a second Referendum carries enough weight, credibility with Populists to reverse a disastrous course set by a previous referendum. Brexiteers demanded a second one to reverse the 1975 British EEC referendum.

* Bernard Aris is a Dutch historian (university of Leiden), and Documentation assistant to the D66 parliamentary Party. He is a member of the Brussels/EU branch of the LibDems.

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