France’s Referendum Lesson for Brexit Britain

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A second referendum on Brexit is portrayed as an attack on democracy by ardent Leavers, and has been outright rejected by the U.K. government. While a growing chorus of businesses and voters like the idea, some politicians say it would be divisive, unhelpful and akin to telling Brits that they got it wrong first time.

Yet over the weekend, a small South Pacific archipelago 10,000 miles from London showed how a second — or even third — vote on a potentially radical constitutional turn of events can actually be a normal and helpful part of the referendum process. Rather than subvert the “will of the people,” it can give it extra weight. 

The French colony of New Caledonia on Sunday voted not on European Union membership but on something even more emotive — whether to remain part of France 165 years after it was colonized. The Kanak minority, which makes up almost half of the population, has been at the heart of a multi-generational struggle for independence that reached an apogee of violence in the 1980s. This year’s referendum, central to a 1998 accord with France over more autonomy, was years in the making.

The result was numerically clear, as was Brexit: Independence was rejected by 56 percent of the votes and supported by 44 percent.

But the twist is that the New Caledonians have the explicit right to hold another referendum within the next two years, and another one two years after that, if one-third of its elected congress members say so. It’s not mandatory, but there as an option. Rather than be dismissed as the last resort of a sore loser, the right to vote again is enshrined in the process.

This is a sensible concept. Referendums are risky: They open the door to protest votes based on the general public mood, or to irreversible processes that are poorly understood. The idea of having two years to weigh the consequences, and then another two years after that, may offend those who want finality, but where the issue is a historical shift in a nation’s course, it is a good one. It tests the majority view over a period of time, which is surely likely to lead to a settled result rather than a knee-jerk reaction or a protest where voters are channelling other concerns.

Changing your mind isn’t cheating. History suggests it does happen: In three referendums on European Union treaties — once in Denmark and twice in Ireland — initial “no” votes were reversed in a revote. Rather than dismiss revotes as bullying from bureaucrats, political scientists note there is often a genuine shift in public opinion between two referendum votes; usually, a rethink happens because the status quo from before the first result now seems like a change for the better. It’s surely more pragmatic to account for this possibility than to dogmatically deny it, as Brexiters seem to do when evidence pops up of a change of heart. Theresa May’s characterization of a second referendum as a “gross betrayal” of democracy shows how unnecessarily emotive the mere mention of a new vote has become, even after Vernon Bogdanor, one of the U.K.’s top constitutional experts, said in July it was the “only” democratic solution.

To be sure, these are two very different places and two very different votes. Brits voted on exiting a voluntary trade, social and political arrangement with Europe; New Caledonians voted on whether to be a nation-state. Their vote probably has more in common with the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, which could also be held again.

Still, the fact that France is able to countenance not one but several referendum votes is a lesson for Britain and others — including Italy — which have recently put complex constitutional reforms to a vote with a warning that there is no going back. Keeping an open mind on more votes might be one way to reduce conflict and emotion around them. The winner doesn’t have to take it all.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering finance and markets. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.