Some of us wish that the UK had never been asked to vote on our place in the EU in the way we were, not because our opinions are not important, but because the issue was far more complex than one simple binary question could realistically answer. When was the last piece of Government legislation passed that referred to a simply binary choice without pages of clauses and days of discussion? The fact is most decisions we take in our lives have far more complex implications than one solitary yes or no would allow. However on 23rd June we answered the question and because those on both sides of the debate did not seriously expect us to vote against Government policy, the only Government agency that had made any provision for a leave vote was the Treasury and Bank of England. All other Government departments were prevented from doing so (that is how poorly prepared our Government was). As the wheels of Government begin to spin to catch up, there is one small piece of legislation that the Eurosceptics demanded at the beginning of the coalition which may yet trip up the process in an entirely unintended way.
As this InFacts blog explains, the European Act 2011 demands that a UK referendum is held if at any time the EU introduces a new treaty or amends an existing one. The consequences of this Government enacting Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is that the Treaty itself will be amended. Hence we will need a referendum to approve that amendment. The second and perhaps much more important change is once we have left the EU and as we join EFTA or find some other way as Michael Gove so succinctly put it before he was rejected by his fellow MPs “We need to renegotiate a new relationship with the EU, based on free trade and friendly cooperation.” The result of our negotiations will be a new International trade treaty which will involve the EU in some way. This is the only practical way in which the separation agreement could have legal effects once the UK has left the jurisdiction of the European Union. One of the problems with referenda, particularly bad tempered ones like we have just been through is that the public may tire of being bullied and lied to and then turning out to vote and the cost of such events. If somewhere along the line our nations bad experience from the first is to add in a minimum threshold for turnout and decision there could be much bigger problems. It could be seen that EU referenda are like buses, we didn’t have one for 41 years and then 3 came along all at once!