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William Astor: Why voting Leave won’t mean we leave the EU

7 June 2016

2:31 PM

7 June 2016

2:31 PM

It is difficult not to be Eurosceptic. The euro is in trouble, Greece has been bankrupted by Angela Merkel’s fiscal rules, and the Schengen agreement on open borders is collapsing as economic migration seems impossible to stop. Genuine refugees are sadly lost in the human tide of misery landing on the shores of Greece and Italy.

And the democratic deficit which allows the European Union to be so unaccountable is leading to the rise of extreme nationalist political parties all over Europe. The result – Bulgaria has a lamentable justice system, Poland has introduced illiberal media laws and Hungary’s constitution has been hijacked.

The EU is in danger of collapse unless it undertakes serious reform. That, I believe, most of us all agree on, but it’s an uphill struggle. We Conservatives made a mistake when we thought that the inclusion of the Eastern bloc countries in the EU, after they were freed from the shackles of centralised rule, would be a beneficial influence. Sadly most, with a couple of exceptions, have remained subsidy junkies beholden to Brussels in the same way they were once beholden to Moscow.

Having said all that, a Brexit vote to leave now is not the answer. While the economic issues, with strong arguments on both sides, are important, the crucial issue is sovereignty. There are three reasons why not to vote leave.

David Cameron successfully reached an EU agreement of modest, hard fought but important reforms earlier this year. Having done that, if we the British are now the ones who remove the final plank of the support scaffold that is holding up the leaning tower of the EU we will not be forgiven by our EU partners. We will lose what influence we have to negotiate to persuade the other 27 countries to undertake meaningful reform.

Secondly, a vote to leave will lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom. It will give an excuse to the SNP to launch again their independence campaign in order to have Scotland vote to remain in the EU. This ignores the fact that their application is unlikely to be successful, certainly blocked by Spain with their Catalonian issue. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein would campaign to join the South to stay in the EU, leading to the danger of a new level of sectarian violence.

Perhaps most important of all, if the Brexiteers win, an exit from the EU is actually not deliverable. The EU referendum is merely advisory; it has no legal standing to force an exit. Parliament is still sovereign. We will need an Act of Parliament to revoke the European Communities Act 1972, by which Britain joined the EEC or Common Market, or perhaps a paving bill enabling the Government to start the Leave negotiations. But whatever, a vote will be required.

The Government, whether still led by David Cameron or not, would probably not win the vote in the House of Commons. Labour could claim the referendum was too close and did not include a majority to leave in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Therefore the Labour Party, the SNP and the few Lib Dems would claim to have the mandate to vote against the bill.

It would then only take a few fiercely europhile Tories to consult their constituents and their consciences, and decide that after all their campaigning to stay in the EU they cannot vote to leave either. Can one imagine Ken Clarke voting to leave even on a three-line whip?

Reports this week suggested pro-EU MPs are already plotting to keep Britain in the EU whatever the result: on the basis that Vote Leave has not spelt out an alternative deal for Britain’s access to the single market, they will claim there is no mandate for change.

If that happens, the Bill then falls. Then we have a vote of no confidence and chaos enthuses. This used to be simple but under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, cobbled together to keep the Lib Dems happy in the coalition, a two-thirds majority is required for MPs to trigger a general election.

Labour would play a clever game and either vote against or embarrass the Government by abstaining. Then, under the Act, there is a two-week period when other parties can try to form a Government, an unlikely outcome. If there is no resolution, a General Election is called.

A bewildered and split Conservative Party will try to come together. Will the Conservative election manifesto then be to stay or leave? Whichever, the voters will probably punish the party.

The result: those who wanted Brexit have failed as we stay in the EU. Those of us who favoured negotiating a reform of the EU have lost as we are ridiculed by the rest of Europe and have lost any influence we ever had. Those who believe in the Union have lost as the United Kingdom is under increasing pressure to break up.

The winner is Jeremy Corbyn, who still cannot quite understand how he became leader of the Labour Party and is now even more surprised to find himself on the way to the Palace to form the next Government, with a remit for federalism and socialism in an EU possibly enlarging to include eighty million Turks.

Our sovereignty is, it goes without saying, lost forever.

Will Britain vote to leave the EU? Can the Tories survive the aftermath? Join James Forsyth, Isabel Hardman and Fraser Nelson to discuss at a subscriber-only event at the Royal Institution, Mayfair, on Monday 20 June. Tickets are on sale now. Not a subscriber? Click here to join us, from just £1 a week.

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