The Brief – Give the people what they want?

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter.

‘A device of demagogues and dictators’ was the verdict of Clement Attlee, Britain’s great post-war Prime Minister on referendums. He wasn’t wrong. They are also a ruse for spineless politicians to pass the buck on tough decisions to their electorates.

Yet referendums are very popular with voters. That partly explains why David Cameron – to whom history will not be kind – failed to learn his lesson after being a hair’s breadth away from losing the United Kingdom to Scottish nationalism in 2014, gambled on an ‘in/out’ referendum and blundered into taking Britain out of the European Union by accident.

His enthusiasm for referendums is now shared – it seems – by Europe’s political leaders. After Tuesday night’s theatrical dinner of EU leaders in Salzburg to discuss migration and Brexit bore little fruit, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said that European leaders were ‘almost unanimous’ in supporting a repeat Brexit referendum.

That is unlikely to change anybody’s mind in Blighty. But as the prospect of the UK crashing out of the EU without any agreement on future relations next March has increased, so has demand for a so-called ‘People’s Vote’, where Britons could vote on whether to accept the terms of the UK’s divorce or stay in the bloc.

For Remainers, a second referendum offers hope and, for the small number of regretful Leavers, a chance to avoid the economic pain of a ‘hard Brexit’. But it is no silver bullet and would pose at least as many questions as it would answer, not to mention cries of betrayal from Brexit supporters.

Polling numbers suggest that another poll would result in a narrow victory for Remain, but as polling guru Professor John Curtice says, “the presumption that we would get a different result is not one you should put much money on”.

If the June 2016 plebiscite was scarred by a poisonous campaign marked by rank dishonesty on both sides and naked xenophobia from a large portion of Leave campaigners, a second poll would be even uglier.

It would also be very close. About 9 out of 10 voters still stick by their choice in 2016, Curtice estimates. The poll lead for Remain is because most people who didn’t vote in 2016 would now back Remain. In other words, the outcome of a second referendum would depend on turnout, particularly by young voters.

Like everything Brexit-related, a second referendum rests on a series of hypotheticals about the question, the timing, and what would happen if Britons chose to stay in the EU after March 29th, when it formally leaves the bloc. Besides, does anyone believe that a 52-48% win for Remain would settle the matter once and for all?

The odds are still against a referendum re-run any time soon. For one thing, a new poll would need legislation, which a bitterly divided House of Commons would not be able to pass. Theresa May’s government would probably have to fall before legislation on a second poll could be adopted.

But voters are called upon when a government loses the ability to govern. If Theresa May cannot cobble together a withdrawal deal and get MPs to back it, a second poll could quickly become unavoidable.

The Roundup

By Samuel Stolton

EU justice chief Věra Jourová caused a storm this morning after she described her old Facebook account as a ‘channel of dirt.‘ Her claims came amid the threat of sanctions against Facebook for non-compliance of EU consumer rules.

Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Finland also came into the Commission’s firing line today as the EU’s Budget Commissioner, Günter Oettinger, accused the countries of being reluctant to increase their EU budget contributions.

Poland, on the other hand, can relax – for the time being at least. First Vice President Frans Timmermans decided not to refer the Polish Supreme Court law to the EU’s top court, the European Court of Justice, as had been previously expected.

Malta’s PM Joseph Muscat dropped a Brexit bomb today, claiming that there was “almost unanimous” backing among EU leaders for a second referendum in the UK.

Meanwhile, Hungary has lashed out against the swathes of criticism that it has faced since Orbán’s appearance in Strasbourg last week, with the country’s foreign minister accusing UN human rights experts of spreading lies.

Don’t be surprised if you start to see a considerable decrease in the production of petrol, diesel and hybrid cars over the forthcoming decades as a new study suggested Europe should stop selling such vehicles if it is to meet Paris agreement targets.

This comes at a time in which the Russian oil firm, Surgutneftegaz, is pushing buyers to agree to pay for oil in euros instead of dollars if the need arises, apparently as insurance against possible tougher US sanctions.

Look out for…

Commissioner for the Digital Single Market, Andrus Ansip, jets off to New York tomorrow to take part in this weekend’s annual meeting of the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development. A range of government and industry sectors, and Special Guests as well as The Broadband Commissioners will discuss “the 50/50 moment- Half the World’s Population online” and the importance of connecting the other half as set by the Commissions New Targets 2025 launched in January 2018. 

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