Brexit Article 50 verdict: Referendums are ignored more often than you think

Brexit - the problem with a referendum that isn't legally-binding

The EU Referendum

Friday, November 4, 2016

After the Brexiteers rocked Europe to its foundations by voting themselves out of the EU this summer, now it's their turn to reel against a shock decision.

Yesterday's High Court verdict that Theresa May must go through Parliament to trigger Article 50 infuriated the Leave brigade - slightly ironically, given their whole campaign was based on the primacy of Parliament - and raised the prospect of the Brexit process being completely thwarted.

Outers say they're not even contemplating the prospect of their beloved Brexit being blocked - even though the referendum wasn't legally binding. In an interview with Julia Hartley-Brewer on talkRADIO earlier today, UKIP MEP Patrick O'Flynn vowed that "we'll get our Brexit" come hell or high water. They claim the people have spoken and there's no way of bolting the stable door now.

Yet perhaps the Brexiteers shouldn't be too complacent. Because referendum results have been ignored and overturned more often than you might imagine.

In 2008, for example, Ireland threw the EU into chaos - just as Britain has this year - when it became the only country to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, which voters subsequently rejected by a majority of 53%.

However the treaty had to be ratified by all EU member states before it could enter the statute book. During the ratification period, Irish and EU politicians decided to hold another referendum - and this time 67% of voters backed the treaty.

The Irish peop[le also rejected another European compact, the Nice Treaty, in 2001 but the result was reversed in a fresh referendum the following year, after a number of assurances were proferred from Brussels.

Last July, the Greeks voted by about 61% to 39% to reject harsh austerity policies sought by the EU in exchange for a multi-billion-pound bailout. The left-wing government in Athens, which feared for the future of the country's banks and economy, pushed through a serious of even more gruelling austerity measures shortly afterwards - flying in the face of the referendum result.

Even France, whose media has so vehemently criticised the UK for its Brexit vote, has ignored an anti-EU referendum result before. In 2005 French voters were asked whether or not they wanted to ratify the European Constitution, and decided against it - with 55% of voters voting down the new agreement, a far more convincing margin than that obtained in June's UK referendum.

But then came national elections, and candidate Nicolas Sarkozy said he would re-negotiate the constitution to ensure a better deal - without going to the people again. In 2009 Sarkozy, now installed as French President, and his fellow EU leaders quietly subsumed the European Constitution into the Treaty of Lisbon, which was adopted by the French Parliament - this time they didn't take the risk of asking the people what they thought.

So for all the Brexiteers talk of constitutional crises and democratic deficits, they should remember that referendums aren't always final, and there's certainly precedent for the unthinkable to happen.