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Reject the Deal

May’s Deal Threatens Popular Sovereignty: It’s Time for a Full Brexit

Lee Jones

3 December 2018

The backstop protocol threatens to lock the UK, especially Northern Ireland, into EU rules in perpetuity, neutralising all the prospective gains from the referendum. A second referendum would damage British democracy, but not so much as accepting this. The situation is grim, but the only alternative is to fight for a Full Brexit, a total break with the EU.

This article is part of a debate. For the case for the deal, click here.

That May’s deal is shockingly poor comes as no surprise. In fact, The Full Brexit – and its forerunner, The Current Moment – has developed an analysis of British and EU politics that leads one to expect this very outcome.[1] In short, Britain is no longer a sovereign nation-state; after decades of European integration it has become an EU member-state. Its political leaders have increasingly withdrawn from the electorate, looking to their European counterparts to develop policy. Its civil servants, its bureaucratic and judicial institutions have become networked with their EU equivalents (see Analysis #1 - The EU's Democratic Deficit: Why Brexit is Essential for Restoring Popular Sovereignty). The British political establishment did not wish to terminate these arrangements, which is why every major political party, 85 percent of members of parliament, the Treasury, the Bank of England, and practically every elite institution in British life campaigned for Remain.


This elite has subsequently split into those committed to honouring the referendum result, and those dedicated to its frustration. But they remain united in wishing to avoid any decisive rupture with the EU. They are fearful of disrupting the status quo and, having lost the habit of developing independent national policy on vast swathes of social and economic issues, they have no vision of how to take the country forwards. The only ideas floated in mainstream debate are ludicrous notions, such as turning the UK into a low-regulation Singapore, which command negligible public support.[2] Accordingly, even those, like May, determined to uphold the result, end up pursuing the closest possible alignment to the EU. Any serious deviation is denounced as an irrational “hard” Brexit. It is hardly surprising that the Withdrawal Agreement ends up producing “Brexit in name only”.[3]


May’s Deal: Sacrificing Popular Sovereignty


From the perspective of The Full Brexit, the purpose of leaving the EU is to restore popular sovereignty and enable democratic and economic renewal (see Proposal #10 - The Full Brexit: There is an Alternative to Brexit in Name Only). It is clear that May’s deal will not do that.


On the face of it, the transition period, while problematic, is arguably necessary to extricate Britain from EU structures. Consider that states joining the EU spend many years aligning their domestic laws, regulations and institutional structures to the EU. Britain must go through this process in reverse. It takes time. ECJ jurisdiction during the transition means that we remain sub-sovereign, but it is at least time limited and, after the transition, UK courts will only need to pay “due regard” to ECJ case law. The so-called “divorce bill” is also not unreasonable: since the UK retains access to EU markets and facilities to the end of 2020, it makes sense to pay the commitments already made to the EU budget. On citizens rights, the deal is less generous than the proposal made on The Full Brexit to grant immediate British citizenship to EU nationals resident in Britain, unilaterally, making them subject solely to UK law. But the deal secures key rights and ECJ jurisdiction, while it drags on past the transition, is strictly time limited.


The real problem comes with the backstop. The transition period is temporary and can only be extended with both sides’ agreement. The backstop potentially lasts forever, and can be terminated only with mutual agreement, i.e., the EU gets to decide when the arrangement ends. This is an even worse situation than EU membership itself: at least the Lisbon Treaty allows a state to trigger Article 50 and leave the Union, even potentially without agreement with the remaining EU member-states. The backstop essentially sacrifices what remains of British sovereignty to the EU. The EU is made the arbiter of our political future. Unless we do what the EU wants, we are trapped indefinitely in a subordinate, sub-sovereign position where vast swathes of our domestic policy remains under effective EU control. Nor are we likely to escape from the backstop without tying our hands in perpetuity. This is not some kind of EU conspiracy to prevent us leaving. It is the natural result of fear of disrupting the status quo, particularly in Ireland – on the part of both London and Dublin – resulting in an agreement that tries to change as little as possible.


The backstop requires the UK to align its rules on commerce, business tax, state aid, competition, and environmental and social regulation, to the EU, while Northern Ireland will essentially remain a quasi-member-state, being forced to retain “full alignment” on customs, technical regulations, agriculture, the environment, and electricity, and subject to ECJ jurisdiction and direct European Commission intervention.


The clear purpose of these restrictions is to bind the hands of future British governments, of whatever stripe. Compelling alignment on taxation, competition and environmental and social protections is intended to prevent the UK pursuing an agenda favoured by right-wing Brexiteers: cutting taxes and regulations to become more competitive, which would undercut bureaucratically-burdened EU businesses. Forcing the UK to maintain state aid and competition rules is a deliberate attempt to outlaw socialist intervention in the economy, as EU officials have privately admitted. Tory blowhards complaining that the deal would mean the UK cannot complete free trade deals with other countries are missing the point. The UK will not be able to do much else, either – and these areas of domestic policy are far more critical for renewing our economy than trade deals.


May’s case for accepting the Withdrawal Agreement hinges entirely on her capacity to negotiate a “good deal” for the future relationship. The backstop need never be used, she insists; a deal can be struck during the transition period. However, given the rigid constraints that the EU has imposed in exchange for continued market access, it seems inconceivable that it will agree to a future relationship that is markedly different from the terms of the backstop. The UK will need the EU’s agreement to extend the transition period, making it all the more likely that it will concede to EU demands. The EU can refuse to extend, plunging the UK into the backstop, from which it can only escape with EU agreement.


The stage is clearly set for British capitulation. The UK will remain so closely aligned to EU rules that people will reasonably ask why we bothered with Brexit at all. The UK will be in a position of rule-taker, unable to influence the regulations governing its social and economic life. Under these conditions, pressure to re-join the EU will undoubtedly increase. In this sense, far from healing the Leave/ Remain divide, the Withdrawal Agreement will fuel this political struggle, with Remain morphing into Return.


Political Calculations


The argument Chris Bickerton makes for accepting the deal is a pragmatic one. No other deal is currently on offer, and it is a fantasy to believe that a better deal can be negotiated (including by a putative – but actually equally fantastical – Labour government) in the time remaining. Parliament will not accept “no deal”. The choice is therefore between May’s deal and a second referendum designed to overturn the result of the first. This would be a bruising test of sovereignty: are the people sovereign, such that they can issue a binding decision to parliament to implement, or is parliament sovereign, such that it can ask the people to change their mind if it does not like the result or is not minded to implement it?


This analysis is not wrong. The opposition to May’s deal is such that it seems impossible to steer through parliament, while clamour for a second referendum is building; it seems “inevitable”, as Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell now says. The question is whether the restoration of popular sovereignty is better served by accepting May’s deal or by opposing it.


My analysis suggests that the Withdrawal Agreement threatens to destroy popular sovereignty. May seeks to “honour the referendum result” only in form, not in substance: the UK will leave the EU, but will remain tightly bound by EU strictures, in perpetuity, either through the backstop or through a future relationship that replicates its essential features. This is the “Hotel California” Brexit: you can check out but you can never leave. This can only demoralise the electorate who desperately hoped for real change when voting for Brexit. It will confirm what millions of them already suspect: that voting changes nothing. Rather than revitalising democracy, Brexit in name only will further corrode it. And in years to come, if the Returners prevail, the whole exercise will be written off as a tragic example of the mess than happens when the electorate are allowed to decide national policy.


For similar reasons, a second referendum would itself be an offence against democracy (see Proposal #5 - Do Not Hold a Second Referendum).[4] It would indeed directly raise the question of whether the people’s will counts for anything, or whether our elected representatives can simply fail to implement our wishes then demand we change our minds.


But perhaps it is better to confront this question head on, fighting the referendum to generate an emphatic answer to the question “who calls the shots?”


This outcome is, of course, far from secure. The nation is exhausted by Brexit, and the government’s shambolic conduct has so demoralised Leave voters that, after holding firm for two years, polls began to show a majority for Remain for the first time. Many Leave voters see what has happened as confirmation of their fears that voting makes no difference, so it is unclear whether they can be expected to turn out.


But a second referendum would not really be about Brexit; it would be about democracy itself, and accordingly we should hope to win both Leavers and Remainers to our cause. Despite a constant campaign from diehard Remainers, public support for a second referendum has always been tiny, with typically fewer than a quarter of people backing the idea. This is because most British people are democrats: they believe that democratic decisions must be respected, even if they disagree with them. Moreover, we should not underestimate the sense of outrage and humiliation felt by many citizens over the government’s incompetence and the EU’s treatment of Britain.


When asked whether they would favour Remain or No Deal in a recent poll, in the midst of Project Fear 2.0, 52 percent backed No Deal. When May’s deal was included, only 39 percent backed Remain, while 28 percent backed No Deal and 33 percent supported the current Withdrawal Agreement. Indeed, however the question was posed, Remain always came last.[5]


The situation is clearly dire. A predominantly Remainer establishment has produced a deal that means Brexit in Name Only, and the only alternative to accepting it seems to be a second referendum designed to keep us fully within the EU. But rather than backing an awful deal out of pragmatism and fear, it is time to campaign for The Full Brexit – a meaningful, decisive break from the EU.




[1] On TFB, see especially Analysis #1 - The EU's Democratic Deficit: Why Brexit is Essential for Restoring Popular Sovereignty. For previous analysis see The Current Moment. This outcome was foreseen on TCM, shortly after the referendum: see Lee Jones, “Will the UK Actually Leave the EU?”, The Current Moment, 30 July 2016. For a long-form treatment of these issues, see Christopher Bickerton, European Integration: From Nation-States to Member States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) and see also James Heartfield, The European Union and the End of Politics (Winchester: Zero Books, 2012).

[2] George Eaton, “How the Right’s Brexit Dream Died”, New Statesman, 28 November 2018.

[3] See Lee Jones, “Brexit in Name Only: Causes and Consequences”, Briefings for Brexit, 1 November 2018.

[4] See also Lee Jones, “Referendum Redux?”, The Current Moment, 2 November 2016; Philip Cunliffe, “Too much of a good thing: arguments against a second referendum”, The Current Moment, 6 December 2016.

[5] Stephen Fisher, “Deal or No Deal or Remain”, Deltapoll, November 2018.

About the author

Lee Jones is Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London.

This work represents the views of the authors only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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