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direct democracy A second Brexit referendum? Swiss lessons on repeating votes

dog with EU coat

Britain and the EU: hardly leaving at greyhound pace.

(Associated Press)

Three years after voting to leave the European Union, the United Kingdom is still polarised over Brexit. Would a second referendum heal the divisions or just create more? Swiss democracy could hold some lessons, experts say.

As the UK heads for a general election, a second Brexit vote is still not off the table. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has no intention of offering one, but if he lacks a clear majority on December 12 and parliament is hung, he might have no better option.

Labour, meanwhile, says it will definitely hold a second referendum if it takes power. And among the public, 47% are in favour of voting on an exit deal, according to a recent YouGov pollexternal link; 29% are against.

What would a second vote mean for democracy?

It’s not hard to imagine the cries of foul play and betrayal of the popular will; outside Westminster, plenty of placards reckon this has already happened.

Patrick Emmenegger, professor of comparative politics at the University of St Gallen, says it would depend how the vote was framed.

“What are the reasons you would hold a second referendum?” he says. “Would it be to build bridges in a divided country? To reconsider the decision to leave the EU? To choose between a soft and hard Brexit?”

He says the key would be to not present the vote as a way of reversing a wrong decision, as some of the 48% of Remainers see it. Rather it should give citizens a say on a deal that has emerged after long negotiations and which – whatever final form it takes – will be far from the simple “leave” decided in 2016.

Direct democracy often serves as a way to “legitimise a compromise”, Emmenegger says – not to create a “winner and loser” situation for all eternity, which is a very “un-Swiss” approach.

Bruno Kaufmann, a direct democracy activist and swissinfo.ch contributor, agrees. He says that the issue with the Brexit referendum was that it was a “pre-negotiation vote”: instead of offering a clear choice, it was a public pulse-taking that spawned “enormous overreach” by politicians.

He does defend the choice of the British people in 2016, which was not groundless, as some claim. It was based on people’s very real experience of decades of EU membership. Still, he says, a “confirmatory vote” on a clearly outlined deal could help build legitimacy, despite the likelihood that the vote becomes bitter and politicised.

1992 swiss vote

The Swiss Brexit: just over half the Swiss population voted not to join the European Economic Community in 1992.

(Keystone / Str)

The Swiss Brexit

In Switzerland, whose citizens vote more often than most and where direct democracy is a well-oiled system, re-runs and (mal)adaptations of votes are common.

The most controversial case in recent years was the 2014 decision by 50.3% of voters to restrict immigration from the EU: a “very Brexit-style” story, Emmenegger says.

Like Brexit, the close-run result put Switzerland in a pickle: though not a member of the EU, the country’s tight links with the bloc depend on a number of agreements and quid pro quos, including the freedom of movement for EU citizens.

And so, after two years spent failing to convince Brussels to cede, the Swiss parliament implemented a “light” version of the initiative involving neither walls nor quotas: rather they instructed unemployment offices to offer open positions to Swiss residents before offering them to immigrants.

This “lukewarm” implementation came close to not implementing it at all, Emmenegger says. Calls of treachery abounded. One political scientist even tried to challenge the decision to a referendum – not because he was anti-EU, but for the sake of democratic principles.

Yet the implementation was not challenged by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, although it could have done so. Rather, opponents regrouped, surveyed the landscape and have since handed in the 100,000 signatures needed to force a vote on a similar but more extreme option: cancelling free movement entirely.

So the issue lingers. But it has not (quite) polarised the country, and has now been boiled down to an essential question, one which was implied but not explicit in 2014: should Switzerland jettison this specific EU accord? Voters will again decide.

If not first time around…

Another issue that came up twice in two years was the reform of the corporate tax system. Under pressure to comply with international standards on tax evasion and fiscal fairness, the government proposed a package of measures that came to referendum in February 2017.

The plan was rejected, and again the government was left with a direct democratic headache: popular opinion was blatantly opposed to the necessities of international cooperation – the webs of obligations from which it can be difficult and damaging to untangle oneself.

The solution? They reframed the question and put it back to the population two years later, this time ensuring a broader backing from political parties (notably the left-wing Social Democrats, who had been opposed first time around), as well as linking it to another heated topic, pension reform.

Criticism came: both of putting a similar issue to the people twice in two years, as well as of the somewhat artificial linkage of two policy areas in one vote.

Yet despite this “unholy” alliance of issues, Kaufmann says the negotiations and modifications hammered out in parliament are part of what makes Swiss democracy successful.

Tax reform was seen as something which simply needed to get done, he says. The question was more “how” than “if”. And so a political formula was found and presented to the people – who had every right to reject the pensions sweetener if they thought it was a sneaky ploy.

They didn’t. The vote passed, and now (in another quirk of the Swiss system) each canton will vote on implementing its version of the new tax system.

Everyone’s a winner?

These are not isolated cases. Issues come up time and again in Switzerland: maternity leave, female suffrage, immigration, electoral reform. There are no hard-and-fast rules as to when a vote should be binding for eternity and when it should be reconsidered.

Faced with the idea that voting again on Brexit would be a democratic betrayal, Emmenegger is clear. “A 52% vote result cannot be seen as an ultimate victory, and to treat anybody who says otherwise as a public enemy is a narrow and self-serving vision of democracy,” he says.

Rather, what the Swiss model achieves – through public input, parliamentary groundwork and regular votes – is a situation where “winners and losers” doesn’t apply, Kaufmann says. Or, if there are losers, they are “happy losers”, included in the decision-making process.

By contrast, the UK’s historical lack of experience with direct democracy has left the country polarised by what Kaufmann reckons was simply an expression of “general advice” by the population – a plebiscite rather than binding referendum.

Whether things will calm down is difficult to predict. Some hope Brexit will spur a healthier appetite for democratic participation, and Kaufmann says that it has already led to one shift: more people have found a voice.

For now, however, “the problem with British politics remains that most people lose, while not many win”, he says.

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