The European Commission’s reaction to the latest failure of the Withdrawal Agreement, published on Facebook, is noteworthy,
‘We regret the negative vote in the House of Commons. A “no-deal” scenario on 12 April is now a likely scenario.’
This is unsurprising. The Withdrawal Agreement is a joint treaty of the UK and EU; it was drafted by the European Commission and agreed by heads of member state governments in the European Council.
As I have written before, there is tension between the People’s Vote campaign’s declared support for European integration and the campaign’s opposition to an agreement concluded by the European public authorities. This is akin to a dilemma long faced by Northern Irish Loyalists; when the entity to which you are loyal acts in a fashion contrary to your perceived interests, do you remain loyal in these particular circumstances?
It is true that Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, expressed support for the People’s Vote campaign this week. Tusk nonetheless represents the intergovernmentalist wing of the European public authorities; federalists in the European Commission have long been suspicious of the European Council. Tusk’s comments were also not made by the European Council as an institution.
The European Commission hence regrets the defeat of its agreement in the Commons. My impression is that the Commission is keen to complete Brexit, so as to reduce uncertainty and move ahead with a more federalist agenda.
I don’t think that the position of the People’s Vote campaign is unambiguously Eurosceptic; current circumstances are unique. There is nonetheless a key tension; People’s Vote supporters need to reflect upon it.
I didn’t take part in the People’s Vote (PV) march. Nor have I signed the petition to revoke Article 50. In previous months, I have outlined problems which I have with this campaign, including its lack of respect for the original referendum result and increasingly illiberal character. Here are three observations which are more specific to events this weekend.
1/ Marching/signing the petition makes no deal more likely
I continue to be troubled by the PV campaign’s rejection of the May Withdrawal Agreement. I don’t think that PV supporters appreciate the remote odds which they face and associated risks of no deal. If the May Agreement is rejected, let us say that the chances of a second referendum and no deal both stand at 50%. In a subsequent referendum with a three-way choice (remain, no deal, May agreement), let us say that each option has a 33% chance of victory. This simplifies things somewhat, yet illustrates the long odds faced by the PV campaign. In this scenario, there is a 1 in 6 chance of Britain remaining in the EU; the no deal outcome has a much higher chance of success.
I am unimpressed by a campaign which courts disaster like this. In my opinion, acceptance of the May agreement by parliament is the best course of action. This agreement avoids no deal and respects the result of the first referendum. Given that it provides no clear victory to any side, I also believe that the May agreement is most likely to promote national reconciliation.
2/ The PV campaign exhibits symptoms of alt-centrism
In recent times, I have been alarmed by the changing character of European centrism. In the three countries I follow most closely (UK, Spain and Poland), centrists have become distinguished by their partisanship, disdain for liberal-democratic procedure and illiberal online organization. In contexts in which liberals are locked out of governments – a counter-case is France – this seems to be an established trend. I do not consider movements like PV, Ciudadanos and KOD to be equivalent to the alt-right/left, but the label ‘alt-centrist’ is apposite; these movements have strayed from classic centrism.
Developments over the last few days confirm my worries about the PV campaign. The notion that an online petition overrides a statutory referendum is absurd, yet is seriously entertained by Twitter accounts sympathetic to PV. Not everyone who marched today adopts such views, yet I fear that this kind of disposition is not untypical.
3/ The PV campaign embodies failures of UK liberal society
In most Western countries, the populist challenge to liberalism reflects failures of the latter; much has been written about the influence of stagnant real wages, inequality, immigration etc. These phenomena have taken place across countries, yet there is a specific issue with UK liberalism: the failure to mobilize during the 2016 referendum.
I am afraid that impressive levels of participation in today’s march throw into relief poor participation in the 2016 Remain campaign. During this campaign, I was one of the most active Remain campaigners in Wales. I was repeatedly disappointed by desultory engagement of fellow Remainers; I lost count of the number of occasions in which ‘major’ Cardiff leafleting sessions were attended by just a handful of volunteers. If the UK Remain campaign had been one million volunteers strong, à la today’s march, I suspect that we would have won the referendum. The fact that UK liberal society achieved such impressive mobilization today, for a cause which risks aggravating the country’s plight, is a source of no small personal irritation.