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Brexit's Lesson for the European Union
Those who are dissatisfied with the outcome of the UK referendum on EU membership have responded defensively and dismissively. Accusations have been made about lies and misrepresentations by the pro-Brexit campaign, while the representations made by the other camp have not generally been subject to serious scrutiny. Is there any evidence, for instance, that Brexit will result in war? Concerned about further defections, some EU leaders have promoted a counter-productive strategy of harsh punishment: the UK should be punished severely to prevent other Member States from even considering an exit. Implicit in their position is the unattractive proposition that the EU can be kept together only if it punishes defectors. Unfortunately, the retributive approach, which has long been abandoned in criminology, has merely reinforced the impression of an anti-democratic behemoth controlled by an unaccountable bureaucracy.
Proposals have also been made for structural changes to the referendum process in Britain (or more generally). One such proposal involves raising the minimal decisive vote in future referenda from a simple majority to some qualified majority (e.g., two thirds) to preclude a narrow majority from making fundamental long-term changes to the system. The US has adopted a high threshold for amendments to its constitution, but there at least some current thinking seems to favor reducing the threshold. In any event, if a referendum is part of the process, it seems logical that the threshold for leaving the EU should be the same as the threshold for joining the EU, and it should be agreed in advance, not after the fact and in light of a controversial outcome. Other proposals involve a second referendum that would be decisive on the issue. The justification for a second vote would be that people should be given a chance to learn from their mistakes, to change their mind, and to make the right choice. Of course, the unproven assumption is that people were uninformed or misled, and made the wrong choice.