So Britain didn’t leave Europe last Friday, 12 April, after all. The time-frame to make a decision has been extended by six months. Sure, it is a breather for 10 Downing Street and the European Union headquarters in Brussels in the wider canvas.
While the gradually deepening uncertainty has for now been staved off, the deferment or to summon the new coinage ~ Brextension ~ doesn’t ipso facto expand the range of options. There is time yet for both sides to examine the choice of techniques more incisively, even effect a change in the trend of the discourse with attention riveted to the prickly issues of Customs union and the status of Ireland. Above all, it is Parliament that must of necessity be taken into confidence. In the immediate perspective, a constitutional impasse has been staved off on the eve of Easter. It is now pretty obvious that there are no options along party lines.
There is a spectrum of possible relationships that Britain can have with the EU involving varying degrees of integration with existing institutions, notably a Customs union and the single market, indeed issues that will bear on the economic construct. The recent pattern of voting in the House of Commons suggests that there is neither a Tory nor a Labour consensus. The Conservatives are deeply divided, and it will be some time before Theresa May’s overture to Jeremy Corbyn yields tangible results. The government has failed to win support for Mrs May’s deal.
She and Mr Corbyn have failed to arrive at a compromise. Given the impasse, the case for putting Brexit to another referendum might seem compelling. But a referendum in itself is not a solution if there is no clear proposition before the people. In the absence of substantive proposals, there is little point in organizing a round trip to the people. There have been more of squabbles, let alone forward movement, since 23 June 2016. A major drawback of that vote was the vagueness of the Leave option on the ballot paper.
Brexiters deferred hard questions about what “leaving” would imply in tangible terms. Three years after, such questions are yet to be sufficiently debated, still less grasped. There is time yet till 31 October to thrash out the points at issue. And one option, being recommended by constitutional experts, is to refer the issue to a citizens’ assembly as yet a nebulous concept. Brexit, after all, is an issue of great national importance; the affirmative vote in the referendum was momentous in itself.
But people in general are unfamiliar with a citizens’ assembly, which is not an established mechanism in British politics. The normal procedures have failed; it may be time yet to consider innovative proposals. And if the Commons can choreograph an innovative matrix, it will be a critical achievement in October… with or without Brexit.