It is a total quagmire. An incredible dynamic has taken the U.K. to the edge of a very dangerous cliff. Some three years ago, the Conservative Party, under the very diligent leadership of David Cameron, decided to ask for a referendum on British membership of the EU. He took this decision in order to extinguish a revolt within his own party, by the very conservative and euroskeptic wing, which wanted a divorce from the EU.
Cameron's clever idea was to cut the grass under the feet of euroskeptics by asking for a popular referendum on EU membership. As far as a "remain" vote was very likely to emerge out of the referendum, the Europhobic wing of the Tories would have to accept the popular result. "Vox Populi, Vox Dei" would be the new motto of Cameron and of the "remainers."
The referendum was hastily prepared, without allowing more than 3 million British people living and working out of the U.K. to vote, and it had a "non-binding" nature, whatever that would mean for millions of people who would go to the voting stations. Cameron and his colleagues were so confident that a "yes" vote would prevail that they have largely overlooked the visible shortcomings of the referendum.
What happened afterward is a textbook case of what-not-to-do in EU contests. First, the Labour opposition, dominated by the left wing of the party, did not invest fully in the referendum campaign, by reluctantly supporting a "yes" vote. This was exactly the kind of attitude the left wing of the French Socialist Party, led by Laurent Fabius, had in the campaign for a European Constitution back in 2005. The leftist opposition at that time was advocating that the European Constitution was too "liberal" and not "social" enough. So the idea was to give a "no" vote to the proposed draft and to start working on a more "social" constitution for the EU. Not only has the European Constitution been rejected in France (and in the Netherlands), but we are still waiting for a more "social" constitutional draft, which obviously will never see the light of day.
This reluctance of the European left social democrats for EU integration has been one of the major causes of public "disdain" regarding the policies prepared in Brussels. The other factor is the "non-visibility" of the EU. Nobody wants to give away the social, political and economic stability and wealth created by this integration, but on the other hand, nobody likes the EU. It remains a distant, top-down governance system and is not visible for ordinary people. National governments and administrations most of the time play the role of the "good cop," by allowing blame to fall on EU functioning rather than on their own policies. One of the best examples remains the new Italian government. The combination of these factors always motivates people who dislike the EU, who go to vote, and the majority who do not wish to get out of the EU are seldom mobilized.
This is what happened in the U.K. during the 2016 Brexit referendum. An unexpected result emerged, with a relatively high turnout for EU elections, 72 percent. The "leave" vote was victorious by a serious margin; almost 52 percent voted to leave. That came as a tsunami in British politics, the euroskeptics within and out of the Conservative Party were jubilant, whilst the U.K. was divided deeply geographically and demographically. England and Wales voted "leave" whereas Scotland and Northern Ireland w
anted to remain. The population over 45 voted largely for "leave" whereas the younger generations massively voted for "remain."
This divide remains very vivid today. Cameron resigned and was replaced by Theresa May, who initially was a "remainer," but took to heart the vote to take the U.K. out of the EU. The relevant legislative steps were taken (the famous Article 50) to start an amicable divorce with the EU.
At this juncture, and only then, it became visible what kind of terrible mistake had been made, trying to get the U.K. out of a very intrinsic and deep integration system, which was there for more than 40 years. It became visible that the Europhobic right wing had no idea about what to do after Brexit, except some delusional ideas of an Elizabethan period resurrected. The asymmetry between the U.K. economy and that of the EU 27, about 10 times bigger, has shown the real consequences of such a divorce.
The "deal" concocted between the EU 27 and the U.K., during two-year negotiations has been found profoundly distasteful to both Brexiteers and the opposition. It has already been rejected twice by the House of Commons, whose flamboyant speaker has decided that the same text cannot be proposed to the chamber for a third time, according to an antediluvian precedent. Theresa May, who is as stubborn as Thatcher was but without her political strength, is totally helpless; she wanted to please the right wing of her party while accommodating the center, and she failed on both fronts. She has asked for three more months, the EU 27 have allowed only two weeks.
Huge demonstrations are taking place in the U.K., hundreds of thousands of people petitioning or protesting on the streets to stop the suicidal move that Brexit has turned into. The Brexiteers have consolidated their stance by advocating that the people voted back in 2016 and that the political elite has to abide by the "Vox Populi." Therefore, it is "undemocratic" to oppose a Brexit in the Parliament, or to ask for a new referendum, now that the population has really seen the dangers, but it is very democratic to believe in the irrevocability of an ill-prepared, non-binding referendum.
This shows how hazardous it is to organize referenda within a parliamentary system, and how representative democracy can conflict with direct democracy. The fact that it is happening in the U.K., the country that taught the world how to make a parliamentarian democracy function properly, is very important in showing the damages that "populism" can inflict.