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When it comes to Brexit, democracy is in the details

On Sunday we learned that the Prime Minister plans to trigger Article 50 by the end of March 2017, setting the UK on the formal path to leaving the EU in 2019. So while we may still not know what “Brexit means Brexit” means, we at least know when it will happen.

We know, too, that Mrs May has set out the goal of a fairly ‘hard’ Brexit scenario. “Let me be clear”, she said. “We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration again. And we are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”. Mrs May wants maximum possible free trade with the EU, but without any of the inconvenient rules that went along with membership, or indeed any ‘interference’ from the EU’s legal body.

But is hard to see how and in what ways the UK can enjoy access to the single market without also abiding by the various rules and regulations that are the price of access to that market. This is the implication of the ‘Norwegian’ or ‘soft Brexit’ option, but given the current dominance of the ‘taking back control’ mind-set dominating the top tiers of the Tories, this is seemingly ruled out in favour a ‘hard Brexit’.

And virtually missing from both the Prime Minister’s speech and most of the media debate around Brexit is this: the conditions of any post–Brexit deal will be decided not simply by the UK government alone but also by the European Union. The ending as much as the starting of any partnership or union involves more than one party after all.

A tricky balancing act to pull off. Perhaps that’s why Mrs May also appears to want to rule out any ‘interference’ from the UK’s own Parliament.

Indeed, Mrs May claims that those who call for Parliament to be involved in the process are “trying to subvert democracy”. Yes, let’s read that again: to call for Parliamentary oversight of the biggest change to the UK’s international position in generations is to attempt to ‘subvert democracy’.

Well, if that’s the case, we may now know what Brexit means, but Mrs May will have to give us her definition of democracy. And that cannot be simply a matter of pointing to the referendum result. The referendum, lest anyone has forgotten, asked UK citizens to decide whether the UK should ‘remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union’. That is all. You cannot pick your own favourite Brexit scenario out of a hat and fall back on that single, simple sentence to justify it.

The democracy is in the details. Our government must guarantee full public engagement with and transparency on the negotiations. Then the negotiators should put their best options to the people in a second, multi-option referendum on the final deal, and let them decide.

For the Green Party in Northern Ireland, it is imperative that our representatives in the coming Brexit negotiations ensure environmental protections, human rights, and of course social safeguards like the protections of employees’ rights that EU membership conferred. Mrs May assures us the latter will be protected, but appears to make no reference to the other elements.

Yet these matters are essential, of crucial importance to the common good of everyone on these islands – though you would hardly know it from media coverage of the debate, which focuses almost exclusively on the trade-off between market access and immigration, or even more narrowly, the in-fighting and intrigue within the Tory party.

The Conservatives closed their conference on Wednesday by claiming to be the party of ordinary working class people, and to be ready to tackle unfairness and injustice. It’s a claim, by the way, that would be more convincing had they not spent the last three or four decades relentlessly disempowering those ‘ordinary working class people’ and dismantling the hard won rights and benefits of a welfare state. Still, let’s see them keep to their (newly discovered) commitment by giving the people access to the details and a say in the deal.

For if democracy is in the details, it is also in the debate, the discussion, and above all, the decision.

This blog was written by Councillor John Barry and Maurice Macartney.

5 October 2016

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