Hopes for second Brexit referendum reach fever pitch

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May addresses the media during the G-20 Leaders Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Dec 1, 2018.
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May addresses the media during the G-20 Leaders Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Dec 1, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (AFP) - Hopes for a second referendum on European Union membership are rising in Britain amid heightened uncertainty over Brexit, but big hurdles remain - from the timing to legal complexities on both sides of the Channel.

Prime Minister Theresa May is struggling to convince British lawmakers to back her Brexit deal - formally signed off by EU leaders last weekend - in a key vote in Parliament on Dec 11.

If, as widely expected, it is voted down, what happens next remains highly uncertain. But the backers of a so-called "People's Vote" argue that it opens up an opportunity to ask Britons to think again.

"There is a growing momentum behind the campaign for a second referendum," said Mr Constantine Fraser, an analyst at research consultancy TS Lombard.

"It will become a serious option on the table if, or more likely when, Theresa May's deal is voted down.

"I wouldn't say it's a probability, but it's a likelihood that's growing fast."

SECOND REFERENDUM CALL 'INEVITABLE'

In the latest instance of second referendum activism, the pro-EU Best for Britain group on Saturday (Dec 1) launched a new advertising campaign on vans targeting the districts of "key MPs like Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn".

The support of the opposition party, which has delivered mixed messages on the issue - arguing for all options to be left on the table - is seen as crucial to force another poll.

Mr John McDonnell, Labour's finance spokesman, fuelled hopes the leadership was moving closer to the idea by saying last Tuesday (Nov 27) that it was "inevitable" the party would support a second poll if it could not force a general election.

The hopes of second-referendum advocates were further strengthened by EU President Donald Tusk on Friday (Nov 30).

Speaking at the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires, Mr Tusk said a rejection of the deal by the British Parliament would leave just two options - "no deal or no Brexit at all".

 
 
 
 

'IT'S NOT IMPOSSIBLE'

There are significant structural barriers to a second vote, according to analysts.

"You would need the government to actually table a proposal, have a vote in favour of it, which would require cross-party support," Mr Nick Wright, a fellow in EU politics at University College London, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Mrs May has repeatedly ruled out halting Brexit or holding another vote, and it would be hard without her support.

"It's not impossible," noted Mr Fraser.

"If it becomes clear that there's political pressure for it in Parliament, the government may have no other option politically."

A cross-party group of MPs last Thursday laid down an amendment to Mrs May's EU withdrawal legislation in a bid to stop a no-deal Brexit emerging as the default fallback option.

The proposed amendment would hand power to lawmakers if her plan is rejected in the House of Commons - and could potentially provide a legislative pathway for a referendum.

Labour's Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said it had his "full support", tweeting it was a "great amendment".

'IT WOULD BE COMPLICATED'

Even if MPs did eventually coalesce around another poll, legal and practical problems loom.

Britain has legislated to leave the European Union on March 29, 2019, after triggering Article 50 - the treaty mechanism used to exit the bloc - two years earlier.

It is unclear if the Article 50 process could be paused or reversed unilaterally by the government.

Europe's top court is expected to rule on the matter in days.

Britain could also try to agree a delay with the EU.

"Whether the EU agrees to extend Article 50 will depend on why the UK is asking," said Mr Fraser.

Some analysts think Brussels would be open to a delay for another referendum, but not for further negotiations.

But with European Parliament elections in the spring, the bloc might favour only a few additional weeks, which might not be enough time to stage another poll.

"If it ever gets to that, the Europeans will only extend Article 50 until the European elections," a European diplomatic source told AFP.

The timing was "the biggest barrier" for a second referendum, said Mr Fraser, noting that it could take four to five months to prepare and carry out.

"There is a potential for a clash: even with the extension of the Article 50 process, you'd be tangled up in the European elections in May."

But Mr Wright argued that at that stage, with Britain potentially poised to vote to reverse Brexit, the EU would likely prove flexible.

"It would be complicated, particularly in terms of timing... but I don't think the EU would say no."