British politicians are reluctant to countenance the idea of a second Brexit referendum as it would cause uncertainty and lead to fears that Britain would get an even worse divorce deal from the European Union, a conference in Co Kerry has heard.
Prof Catherine Barnard of University of Cambridge told the first Killarney Economics Conference that the outcome of a second Brexit referendum was so uncertain that most UK politicians were wary of even discussing the idea.
"Nigel Farage mooted that it might be a good idea but then he quickly retracted because, of course, nobody knows the outcome and here is a risk from his point of view that the public could change their position and opt to remain.
“Remember it’s an aging public and remember 75 per cent of the over 65s voted to leave and 75 per cent of the under 25s voted to remain - so there is a moment in time when there will be a flip between the older and the young population. The longer this goes on there is a chance of a change.
“There is an argument that if you have second referendum, the youngsters will vote to stay in. But stay in what? And what sort of relationship will there be in the future [between the UK and the EU]?”
Prof Barnard said that some opinion polls were suggesting no great change from the vote in 2016 but even those polls which did suggest a change with predictions of 55 per cent opting to remain against 45 per cent opting to leave were all within the margin of error.
British prime minister Theresa May has ruled out a second referendum because of the destabilising effect it would have, while some Labour politicians have been criticised for suggesting a referendum on what type of relationship the UK wants with the EU because of its effect on negotiations.
“Some Labour politicians saying we are not having a second referendum on in/out but a first referendum on what a future deal looks like but there’s an argument that that’s a bad tactical move in that it’s would be in the EU’s interest to offer a very bad deal.”
Prof Barnard said that it was ironic that so many of the most ardent pro-Brexit campaigners had enthusiastically embraced the idea that Britain would introduce World Trade Organisation (WTO)regulations if it failed to agree a deal with the EU on the terms of its departure.
“I would say the position of the WTO is grossly underestimated in the whole debate. There is a paradox in that the hardest-core Brexiteers talk happily and enthusiastically about falling back on the WTO without recognising the sovereignty limiting implications of the WTO,” she said.
Prof Gavin Barrett of the Sutherland School of Law at UCD said that WTO rules would only apply in the event of a no-deal Brexit but, if that were to happen, it would be disastrous for Irish exports in particular the Irish food industry.
“The WTO rules really only come into play if you are talking about a no deal scenario. There’s a report by the IFA and if you look at the scale of tariffs imposed by the WTO in that scenario, it would be catastrophic for the Irish food industry.”