Published: 00:00, 30 March 2017
| Updated: 10:47, 30 March 2017
With the triggering of Article 50, Brexit is the greatest chance to renew British democracy, argues Dr Philip Cunliffe
Yesterday was a momentous day for Great Britain and for Europe.
The government invoked Article 50, beginning the formal process of leaving the European Union, as was voted for in the referendum last year and as per the terms of the Treaty of Lisbon.
This is the first time in the history of the EU that a state has voted to leave it.
It is a momentous day for Europe, because it shows that the EU is not the inevitable end for the continent.
It is a momentous day for Britain because it opens up the possibility of renewing British democracy by restoring sovereign control over decision-making at a national level.
There is no doubt that the Brexit vote was the single most important vote in a generation.
It was fundamental because it concerned the very basis of democracy itself: whether political decision-making would be deliberated upon and implemented by elected representatives, or whether it would be decided in secret, negotiated by unelected civil servants and then rammed through parliament.
It was not about choosing between policies offered up by different political parties, but concerned the very process by which policy is made.
This is what made the referendum so important, and why the potential in Brexit is so great.
Whatever the future holds, Brexit means that the British public has greater control over its political life.
Our political elites have been put on notice, and their prior complacency shattered.
It will be more difficult for political leaders to evade responsibility for their choices.
By the same token, voters can have greater confidence that their political views will not be subverted or diluted by unelected Eurocrats.
This effect can already be seen in how Brexit has re-energised British political life, with membership of political parties rising amid a wider public interest in politics.
Those who voted Remain and are concerned EU-inspired legislation will be cut out of British law can now shape the democratic process as much as anyone else.
Whatever views we might have about particular laws and regulations, we can be confident that in future they will have stronger foundations, because they will be more clearly based on popular will, the result of democratic decision-making in parliament.
If anyone wishes to preserve legislation that originally came from Brussels, they now have the opportunity to do so, as well as the opportunity to give those laws deeper roots in British politics.
We can now set about the task of restoring representative democracy, and with it be confident that our political choices are meaningful.
All that said, there is a real risk that the democratic potential of Brexit might be squandered by the government’s rush to invoke Article 50 so quickly.
Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty was designed to deter member states from ever leaving the EU – it was never intended to facilitate the process of exiting the EU. After having voted to leave the EU, why are we still committed to playing by its rules?
The negotiation process that begins now will happen behind closed doors, between negotiating teams of civil servants – much like the EU functions all of the time.
That Prime Minister Theresa May moved so quickly to invoke Article 50 and shunt Brexit into bureaucratic negotiations is a sign of her political weakness rather than decisiveness.
Instead of carefully laying the diplomatic and political ground before invoking Article 50, and without taking the time to build up the state capacity needed to manage the process of withdrawal, Mrs May instead chose to rush towards withdrawal in order to keep her fragile government and party together.
If the democratic potential of Brexit is to be maintained, it is vital that the negotiation process be subjected to as much public scrutiny as possible and that political pressure is kept on the government to meet public demands.
Dr Philip Cunliffe is senior lecturer in international conflict at the University of Kent. His latest book, Brazil as a Rising Power, is published by Routledge.
Log on to www.kent.ac.uk/politics/staff/canterbury/cunliffe.html for more information about his work.
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