Yanis Varoufakis: Britain needs a People’s Debate, not a second Brexit referendum

If I had a magic wand by which to annul Brexit now, I would not use it. 

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Britain is teetering on a knife’s edge: about to crash out of, or back into, the European Union. Either outcome would represent a defeat for democracy in the UK and in the EU.

Crashing out would inflict substantial economic hardship on the weakest in Britain. It would boost jingoism and parochialism, drive England further apart from Scotland and Ireland, and expose the UK to the vagaries of a Trump administration eager to divide Europe and to liberate US corporations operating on British soil from all social and environmental constraints.

Crashing back into the EU (for instance, via the revocation of Article 50) would undermine trust in democracy among many in Britain, while on the continent it would strengthen the hold of the EU’s staunchly anti-democratic ruling technocracy. An unintended consequence would be the reinforcement of Europe’s xenophobic “nationalist international”, whose power is proportional to the EU establishment’s capacity to continue business as usual.

If Brexit has an upside, it is that it has revealed the need for a “People’s Debate”, not only regarding the UK-EU relationship, but also the festering wounds that the British establishment has kept out of sight: the disenfranchisement of rural England, an archaic electoral system, the UK’s ailing economic model, and the Irish and Scottish questions. Crashing out of, or back into, the EU would negate this opportunity by thwarting such a People’s Debate.

Remainers are right to disdain Brexit. In 2016, while representing the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25) in the run-up to the referendum, I stood side-by-side with Caroline Lucas, John McDonnell and others in a joint campaign for radical Remain. In DiEM25’s language, the message was: “In the EU. Against this EU!” The main reason Brexit won was that the Remain campaign was dominated by the Cameron-Clegg-Osborne-Blair roadshow, fronting for the institutions of global financial capital, for whom an anti-democratic EU was perfectly serviceable and consistent with their capacity to rule on behalf of the privileged few. Arrogance and inanity combined with Project Fear to drown out voices for a radical Remain.

An elderly lady in Leeds put it succinctly to me at one of the meetings I addressed: “I agree that staying in the EU to fight for democracy would be best. But, my dear boy, you are not in 10 Downing Street, and neither is Jeremy. Cameron is. A victory for Remain is a victory for him and his mates.”

While I would relish having access to a time machine in order to fight Brexit more effectively, if I had a magic wand by which to annul Brexit now, I would not use it. For what would I tell the lady in Leeds? She fully understood the costs of Brexit. She was not duped by Cambridge Analytica or Facebook. Her vote was intended to strike a blow at the establishment that did all it could to take the demos out of British and European democracy. By annulling her choice today, in order to avoid Britain crashing out of the EU, I would be betraying her in a way I could not justify.

Proponents of a second vote ask: why is giving her a chance to reconsider, having factored in new information, an act of betrayal? The first referendum was agreed to by both sides with plenty of time for debate. Yet a second referendum would have to take place without the consent of half the country and with a countdown clock ticking ominously in the background. Moreover, a parliament unable to agree on Brexit will, equally, never agree on any plausible wording of the referendum question, or on a voting mechanism for selecting between more than two options.

Might securing EU agreement for a long extension to Article 50 (which expires on 29 March 2019) create the space for the comprehensive People’s Debate that Britain needs? Not really. Any extension beyond June means that the UK must participate in the May 2019 European Parliament elections – for even if Brussels and London agree that the UK should not, British citizens will almost certainly win in the European courts if they sue for their right to vote. DiEM25 would be delighted to include the UK in its pan-European electoral campaign. But I cannot countenance looking the lady in Leeds in the eyes and telling her that, despite the Leave result in 2016, she must now vote in the European Parliament elections.

Moreover, any agreed extension would shift the deadline without removing the deadline effect. Theresa May will use the additional time to continue peddling her hopeless deal, run down the clock anew, and blockade herself in No 10 until an exhausted public is yet again faced with another 11th-hour crisis. A delayed deadline will extend the standstill and the Prime Minister’s tenure, rather than enable compromise.

The lady in Leeds, I must confess, has had a major impact on my thinking: if we want Britain to stay in the EU but to fight against the European establishment, and if we want a People’s Debate, we should not want the revocation or extension of Article 50, or a second referendum. What we should want is a progressive in Downing Street. Given our current predicament, there is only one way to speedily get May out and Corbyn in: let the clock run down.

On 29 March, the European Commission will undoubtedly use its emergency powers to stop the clock indefinitely, not merely to extend the deadline. A general election then becomes inevitable, giving the people an opportunity to vote for a government that can allow them the great debate that they deserve regarding the UK’s long-term relationship with Europe and with itself.

Yanis Varoufakis is a former Greek finance minister and the author of “Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment”

This article appears in the 25 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s running Britain?