Since May has proven unable to get a deal through, there are now two alternatives left: no-deal, or an article 50 extension (which would then lead to further deals being put on the table, or possibly a referendum).

Clearly, the EU would prefer a new referendum, which, most experts predict, would lead to remain winning this time (they only lost marginally last time around, and given what a failure Brexit has been, it is obvious to think that Remain would win if a referendum was held now).

However, if they agree to a article 50 extension, it is not guaranteed that a new referendum is held: in fact, May might offer a new deal that is accepted.

With that in mind, why doesn't the EU simply threathen to NOT agree to an article 50 extension unless a referendum is held?

Clearly, this would lead to a referendum being held: nobody wants a no-deal.

This seems like the only sensible thing to do from the EU's perspective, yet I am not hearing anything in the news about it?

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    Comments deleted. Comments should be used to provide constructive criticism to the question itself. Please don't use comments for political debates. For more information about what the commenting priviliege should be used for, please read the help article about commenting in the help center.
    – Philipp
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 10:26
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    -1 The assumptions used in this question are very far away from the reality of the situation. It can't be answered on its own terms until these are corrected. All the previous comments have been deleted because the question is just creating one big political spat here. The answers that have been given don't seem to address the referendum issue Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 10:35
  • Content of an eventual referendum are not given. Labor floated the hypothesis of a remain Vs. May deal referendum.
    – Three Diag
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 11:43
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    "Clearly, the EU would prefer a new referendum" Even if that's true a first world nation knows to force a situation like that to another first world country is a big no (they reserve these tactics against third world country).
    – jean
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 13:22
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    @jean This isn't a "force". They wouldn't be ordering the UK to hold a referendum. They would simply be refusing to agree to an extension (which is within their rights), without one. When you ask someone for something, they are free to impose conditions on it and that doesn't mean those conditions are forced on you - you are still free to take or leave the package on offer.
    – JBentley
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 13:52

8 Answers 8


Clearly, the EU would prefer a new referendum

[citation needed]

May might offer a new deal that is accepted

The EU would have to approve it, and they've already been as clear as possible that this is the deal that has been negotiated. It is possible that if a new government was elected with a different mandate for a radically different deal, that would be worth exploring.

Clearly, this would lead to a referendum being held: nobody wants a no-deal.

Far from obvious: there definitely is a UK no-deal faction in parliament.

Also, what if they hold a referendum and the answer comes back as Leave? Nothing has been solved but more time has been wasted.

No, what's happening here is that the EU is forcing the UK to make a decision. It has to ask for an extension first, and present an offer that would result in some material change to the negotiation position. A referendum is only one of various options for that - fresh elections would also count, as would a change of PM without an election by means of a no-confidence vote. Crucially, to avoid timewasting, whatever the UK presents has to be acceptable firstly to the UK Parliament.

Edit: see Verhofstadt "The European Union should reject a request from Britain to extend its Brexit deadline unless British lawmakers rally around a clear objective for what they want to achieve".

As the comment says, trying to directly order around the UK political process would be unpopular. So they're trying hard to not specify a route out of the impasse, instead forcing the UK political factions to fight among themselves until a conclusion is produced.

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    Isn't one of the reasons things took so long, and which is oft-mentioned here, that the UK government doesn't have a mandate for any specific way forward, just a cobbled together mandate for exiting the EU made from fundamentally incompatible (sometimes even self-contradictory) pieces? Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 15:21
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    Exactly. The whole thing has been conducted in a grossly incoherent manner.
    – pjc50
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 15:28
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    Well, "mandate" is not defined in UK law (for better or worse), and so it tends to mean whatever a politician both wants it to mean and can persuade a relevant audience that it does mean -- either the public or fellow party members depending on the question and situation.
    – terry-s
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 18:02
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    @Valorum at risk of going off topic, but it is not the opposition's job to pass the Government's bills. If the government wanted opposition support, they should have involved the opposition in the negotiations, instead they have acted as if they had an unassailable majority and didn't need to listen to anyone else.
    – Jontia
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 21:49
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    Labour is currently 10 points in the polls behind a government that is voting against its own motion and has abandoned cabinet collective responsibility. "Punishment" no longer means anything here. Labour has its own incoherency and party discipline problem. They will be punished by the press for all sorts of things, some of which might even have happened.
    – pjc50
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 23:09

The EU could indeed threaten to only allow an extension if it was used for a second referendum, but there is a risk that some British people would take exception to being forced into that course of action (by the failings of their own representatives!) and vote to leave with no deal, an outcome the EU wishes to avoid.

Basically the EU doesn't want to play into brexiteers claims about it being undemocratic and trying to force the UK to do what it wants, by forcing the UK to do what it wants.

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    +1. Also, no need to get directly involved in this chaos, things can still end favorably for EU in the long run and they can afford to wait. No need to give brexiteers more fuel, or worse: a direction
    – jean
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 13:29
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    I suppose this is worth mentioning as an extreme possibility, but it is exceptionally unlikely that the UK would shift from ~50% remain supports and ~50% leave supporters to 51%+ no deal supporters. It's important to remember that Remain is a discrete choice - essentially all Remainers want the same thing. Leavers however represent a spectrum of hard/soft Brexit opinions. Ceteris paribus, you'd have to convert all existing soft-Leave supporters to no-deal, whereas to achieve Remain you would merely have to convert a couple of % of Leavers.
    – JBentley
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 14:00
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    Also, you are assuming that the hypothetical 2nd referendum would offer the choices (a) remain / (b) no-deal. That is also extremely unlikely. A much more likely option is (a) remain / (b) accept the current deal
    – JBentley
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 14:05

With that in mind, why doesn't the EU simply threathen to NOT agree to an article 50 extension unless a referendum is held?

Because that's not in the best interest of the EU.

The EU doesn't want a second referendum. The EU wants the UK to make up its mind, and to make it up soon. A referendum does neither. If there is a referendum, whatever the outcome is, people will disagree on what the outcome means. Furthermore, you cannot have a referendum on a very short notice. Apart from logistics, a proper democracy demands there to be time for people to campaign; the public must get the opportunity to make up their minds. So you need time.

But the European elections are near the horizon. Europe will not have time to negotiate with the UK afterwards. There will be a new parliament, and a new commission has to be formed. Remember the UK lost valuable time when May called elections? It's something like that, except that forming a new commission takes much longer. Juncker will be replaced.

For the EU to agree on an extension, the UK must present a plan which can be used to build upon. A referendum is too much uncertainty. And remember, the UK will only be granted an extension if all of the 27 countries agree. And while Germany is very likely to go a long way to avoid a no-deal Brexit, even at huge costs, others (like France) are ready to take their losses and see more value in just moving on.

And beside that, the EU doesn't like to threaten. Whatever the differences it has, it always, always takes into account "we need each other tomorrow". Threats are not part of that.

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    "The EU wants the UK to make up its mind" -> that's the perfect answer. Remember that Parliament is sovereign and doesn't need another referendum to make a decision. All they have to do is pick one option and stick to it. Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 20:37
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    I seem to be missing the problem here. "A referendum takes time. A new EU Commission takes time". Seems like the schedules are pretty aligned. Since both parties will need time, you can avoid painting it as a concession from either side. As for the content of the second referendum, I don't see why that necessarily would be open to interpretation. "Leave/No deal, Leave/May's deal, Remain" are three clear options. You just need ranked voting since it's not binary.
    – MSalters
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 10:45
  • In the scenario @MSalters proposes, there would not be "dragging on and on" or "no clear indication there will be any deal afterwards", because the public would be voting on the specifics of the deal itself (which is what the 1st ref failed to address). The reason it is dragging on now is that the public voted leave, but left it to Parliament to decide what that means. All three of MSalters' referendum options lead to a clear outcome. Such a referendum can even be made legally binding (contrary to the 1st ref) in which case it would not even require Parliamentary support to implement.
    – JBentley
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 14:12
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    I like this answer, but regarding the timing, the issue is not that the investiture of a new Commission takes time, it is that, before the investiture, the elections to the European Parliament have to be over; and they are scheduled too soon to prolong Brexit negotiations. Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 15:33

"Why doesn't the EU simply threathen to NOT agree to an article 50 extension unless a referendum is held?"

In my experience the EU operates quite legalistically, and EU functionaries wish to refrain from doing things outside its range of established legal competences (or, if one is being cynical: they wish at least not to be seen to do such things).

One of the areas outside EU legal competences is the internal affairs and constitutional actions of member states -- insofar as EU law is not violated by the conduct of such affairs and actions.

So I believe this would be a simple explanation for the reluctance or restraint -- whichever it may be - shown by representatives of EU organs in promoting action to resolve the UK/EU impasse. They can and may encourage the UK to come to some decision about what it wants at the level of its relation with (currently) the rest of the EU, but it is not within their remit to promote particular political actions within the UK.

I have to refrain from putting a value judgment on this right now. I suppose that when it gets to be time for hindsight, then the judgment will depend on currently-unknowable factors in the outcome, yet to appear. But it might not be very long now before we get to know, for better or for worse!

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    +1 This is for sure an important point. In the EU, every member is sovereign, so the the EU as such does not have the right to request a new referendum or anything else that can only be an internal affair. Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 18:39
  • Many EU leaders and spokespersons say that they would like the UK to stay. I find those statements credible. Many EU leaders also express their exasperation with UK politics and they do not want the UK to stay at any cost.
  • Extending the Article 50 negotiations beyond the next EU elections will be difficult. Extending them into the next multi-annual financial framework will be extremely difficult. There is little faith that a few weeks would result in a stable majority for a solution in the UK.
  • The UK has held a brexit referendum in 1975 and another in 2016. In between there were rebates, opt-outs, and so on. If the UK were to stay by a narrow margin, the next referendum would be much sooner than 40 years from now. So what would be won by forcing the UK to stay a little longer?
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    After this horrific mess I guarantee any leader even mentioning the idea of another referendum gets kicked out faster than DC resigning after he lost the vote!
    – Tim B
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 17:21

The EU's position (insofar as an organization that is an organization of organizations has a position) is that the negotiated terms are those that the UK can take.

If they don't take those terms, the EU's position is that the UK is legally allowed to leave the EU or stay in the EU under EU law.

The EU appears to be willing to let the UK choose between those 3 choices.

In the event that the UK leaves the EU with no deal, there are "territorial"-ish disputes between EU states and the UK that will no longer be as resolved as they where under the EU framework. These include Gibralter (Spain-UK disagreement) and Northern Ireland (Ireland-UK-IRA disagreement, settled by Good Friday accords).

So in some sense, the EU doesn't want a no-deal Brexit, because it wants those disputes to remain settled.

The EU has also made clear that if the UK wants to stay in the EU, existing deals involving special status for the UK (where it can opt out of things) may no longer be on the table.

The EU has also made it clear that it is uninterested in reopening the current Brexit deal barring major concessions by the UK on matters of substance.

How the UK resolves these issues is up to the UK. They can have another referendum ("Do you want to accept the current Brexit deal (a), or stay in the EU (b)?" or "Do you want to accept the current Brexit deal(a), or no-deal Brexit(b)?" for a 2 question version, or a 3 question version "Current Brexit deal (a), No-deal Brexit (b), stay in EU (c)?", or a 2x2 version "Do you want to Brexit (1) or not (2)? If we do Brexit, do you want to accept current deal (a) or no-deal (b)?") to "settle" the issue if the UK chooses, they could have a snap election and have the new parlaiment decide, they could remove the oath requirement of Parlaiment and sit the 7 Sien Fein MPs and swing the balance of power, but that isn't the EU's problem.

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    Do you have a source for The EU has also made clear that if the UK wants to stay in the EU, existing deals involving special status for the UK (where it can opt out of things) may no longer be on the table. ?
    – gerrit
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 20:32
  • @gerrit "The deal we negotiated at the European Council in February will now be discarded and a new negotiation to leave the EU will begin under a new Prime Minister." - Admittedly Cameron and not the EU
    – Yakk
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 21:52
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    That "February deal" is just one deal among many in which the UK has special status. Without that February deal, UK still has an opt-out from Schengen, Eurozone and many other EU projects. So I'm not convinced that your statement is accurate.
    – gerrit
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 6:28
  • Removing the oath requirement wouldn't cause Sinn Féin MPs to take their seats - this is extraordinarily unlikely to happen, like UKIP coming out for remain unlikely. Why would a party opposed to the British government drop a long standing policy to help the British government? (And if you're looking at it more cynically, a bad Brexit may be politically expedient for them anyway) Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 10:49

Simple: The EU needs to maintain neutrality as to maintain credibility with the UK after Brexit is over. Article 50 is a legal process and the EU can not/should not obstruct that process by making demands of its member states in this fashion. The UK is following its own laws and processes in an attempt to follow Article 50 protocol, as tumultuous as it has been, and the EU just needs to be patient and let the process play out.


It's not just that the EU doesn't have any interest in that, they also aren't in a position to do so.

The facts are that UK handed in the note two years ago (well, almost). Article 50 says that in about two weeks it's deal or goodbye. Nothing more and nothing less.
Further, it says that if all member states agree unanimously they may grant an extension.

It doesn't say that the EU or anyone has a say in the internals of a country, which would be quite perverse, too, if it did. It doesn't say that the leaving country has any obligations.

It doesn't say that UK can actually revoke the Brexit (only some personal opinions state that, the treaty doesn't).

It doesn't say that a member country needs to do repeated referendums or whatever if the decision doesn't please the EU (or doesn't please the people, or whoever).

What the British do or didn't do during the last two years is strictly their very own responsibility (and problem). The EU cannot and should not dictate -- or even suggest -- what to do. Other than: Guys, you know the clock is ticking, get your asses up, whatever it is you do.

Also they wouldn't want to interfere, even moreso as there really isn't any such thing as "the EU" in that case. Who is "the EU"? Juncker?

What they want is a clear statement and an end to the uncertainity which damages the economy in the entire trade zone, they're not getting that with a referendum.

A deal would probably be preferrable for some industry stakeholders, but a hard Brexit really is indeed not so bad (not for the EU at least) at all as long as it just finally happens. What's bad is that nobody knows just what the British want. If they actually know what they want. Which doesn't seem to be the case.

There's nothing worse than uncertainity. Businesses don't like it, investors don't like it, governments don't like it, citizens don't like it. Uncertainity is worse than war, or an earthquake, or a reactor incident.

I wouldn't be surprised if, for that exact reason, at least one or two member states voted "No way!" on an extension, should it come to that. After all, what benefit would an extension bring? What didn't happen in two years is unlikely to happen in two months. It would only make the uncertainity last even longer.

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    "Uncertainity is worse than war" I'm sorry, what?
    – orlp
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 21:57
  • @orlp I believe he means that uncertainty is "worse" meaning "less desirable" and "more harmful" than other things such as war, because it has more negative and fewer positive aspects than the other things mentioned. For example, a war would be bad for the people who have to fight in it, and those displaced by it, but would be very good for the companies producing the weapons used, and the political officials who can use it to promote their agendas. If everyone agreed war was bad, wars wouldn't happen.
    – barbecue
    Commented Mar 15, 2019 at 1:15
  • @orlp: That's right. When there's war, or an earthquake, or a reactor incident, then that's not precisely desirable. But it has many positive aspects nevertheless: there is no doubt, everybody knows what to do, and everybody has someone (something) to blame (e.g. the enemy or the earthquake). You have a clear goal, which is a good thing -- for economy, for development, and for society. Not knowing what may come is devastating. The people is unsettled, economy stagnates or declines, investors, companies (and jobs!) move away to somewhere where there is a goal.
    – Damon
    Commented Mar 15, 2019 at 12:10
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    It's not "some personal opinions". It's a conclusion of the ECJ.
    – JdeBP
    Commented Mar 16, 2019 at 9:38
  • @JdeBP: Please do not spread fake news. There is the personal opinion of one British Lord, and the personal opinion of one ECJ officer. Also there is a press release made by the ECJ mid december which expresses an opinion and explicitly says that the Court of Justice does not decide in the dispute, and which has the explicit words "not officially binding" on the bottom of the page. Everything else is fake news spread by those to whom it would be favorable if the UK could just revoke at the last minute (i.e. UK).
    – Damon
    Commented Mar 16, 2019 at 10:49

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