Over two weekends in September 2017, the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit brought together 50 randomly selected citizens to consider and make recommendations on the form of Brexit that they wanted the UK to pursue. Today, just two days before the European Council is expected to give the green light to starting negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and the EU, the Assembly’s full report is published. Rebecca McKee and Alan Renwick here highlight some of the key findings.
The European Council is expected to agree on Friday that sufficient progress has been made in the Brexit talks to move on to stage two, focusing on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. Reports suggest that the cabinet is having its first detailed discussions of that future relationship – and whether the UK should seek ‘high alignment’ or ‘low alignment’ with the EU – this week and next.
What do the public think on these issues? Though the referendum vote in 2016 decided that the UK is leaving the European Union, it did not allow voters to indicate the type of Brexit they wanted. If the Brexit process is to remain democratic, that is crucial information. As the government embarks upon the next phase of negotiations, we need to understand voters’ priorities and preferences.
That is what is provided by the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, whose full report is launched today. The Assembly was held in Manchester in September and brought together 50 randomly selected UK citizens to learn about, reflect on, discuss and make recommendations on the type of Brexit they wanted the UK government and others to pursue. The Assembly members deliberated on two key aspects of the future UK–EU relationship: trade and migration.
Who was in the Citizens’ Assembly?
The Assembly consisted of 50 people from across the UK who were selected at random to be broadly representative of the electorate. They reflected the population in terms of age, social class, ethnicity, gender, where they lived, and how they voted in the EU referendum. The figure below illustrates the number of people in each category. You can read in detail about the process of recruiting the Assembly members here.
Figure 1: Demographic and Brexit vote breakdown of Assembly members
Decisions made by members of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit
Guidelines for a post-Brexit UK
The Assembly members first developed policy guidelines for trade and migration. Having discussed the issues with a range of experts, the members began by writing down their own initial thoughts. These were discussed in small groups and priority lists were gradually developed. Finally, the whole Assembly voted on the top guidelines in a secret online ballot.
The guidelines are structured as “the UK’s trade / migration policy after Brexit should…’. The leading considerations, as voted for by the Assembly members, are listed below.
Table 1: Guidelines for policy-making
As Table 1 shows, members’ priorities for trade policy were wide-ranging. Even back in September, members highlighted the issue of the Irish border – something that has taken up much of the government’s time in recent weeks. On migration, members were not solely concerned with immigration numbers or the rules about who can or cannot stay in the UK: they also wanted the government to consider aspects of domestic policy that relate to migration patterns, such as training for UK nationals and public service resilience.
Having agreed guidelines, Assembly members then deliberated and voted on specific policy options relating to the UK’s future trade policy – both with and beyond the EU – and future migration policy. The results can be found in brief in our summary report and in more detail in our full report. Though some politicians and commentators still talk up the ‘no deal’ Brexit option, Assembly members showed very little appetite for it. Instead, they wanted a continued close relationship between the UK and the EU, including frictionless movement of goods and services on the border and ongoing free movement of labour, subject to controls and other policy changes.
Having considered trade and migration options separately, Assembly members finally looked at overall Brexit packages. Taking account of members’ feedback during the first weekend, we offered a choice among six possible packages. These focused on the relationship between decisions on trade with the EU and decisions on migration. As the purpose of this exercise was to consider possible trade-offs between different policy areas, we excluded policy combinations that are most likely to prove unattainable, such as staying in the Single Market for goods and services but ending free movement of labour. We did, however, include some options that are feasible but have few vocal advocates, such as leaving without an EU trade deal while maintaining free movement of labour into the UK.
The options were:
Option A: Stay in the Single Market, with free movement of labour as now.
Option B: Stay in the Single Market, with free movement subject to all available controls.
Option C: Do a comprehensive trade deal and allow favourable access for EU citizens short of free movement.
Option D: Do a limited trade deal with the EU, without giving favourable access for EU citizens.
Option E: Do no trade deal with the EU, and allow EU citizens favourable access or free movement.
Option F: Do no trade deal with the EU, and allow EU citizens no favourable access.
As it turned out, the recommendations that the Assembly had reached on specific policy areas were not as incompatible as they might have been, and the results of this exercise were in line with members’ previous recommendations on trade and migration separately. As Figure 1 shows, the options receiving most first preferences were those combining Single Market membership with the use of available controls on immigration (option B) and a comprehensive trade deal with continued favourable access for EU citizens (option C). There was extremely little support for options E and F, which specify no deal on trade. We had not allowed for the option of a comprehensive trade deal and ongoing free movement of labour – which at least some Assembly Members appeared to favour – as this had not, to our knowledge, previously received any significant attention from any side.
Figure 2: Brexit packages, first preferences
Figure 3 shows that, if a comprehensive trade deal between the UK and the EU proves impossible (thereby eliminating option C), a majority of members preferred some kind of ongoing membership of the Single Market.
Figure 3: Brexit packages, if a comprehensive trade deal is unavailable
If it proves impossible to do any kind of bespoke trade deal – as in Figure 3, where options C and D are excluded – most of those who had previously supported a limited trade deal favoured the ‘no deal’ option. But some went the opposite way, resulting in a large majority for maintaining Single Market membership while utilising all the controls that are currently available to countries in the Single Market but which the UK currently chooses not to use.
Figure 4: Brexit packages, if no bespoke deal is available
The majority of members of the Assembly wanted to pursue a close, bespoke relationship with the EU. This would take the form of an arrangement allowing the UK to conduct its own international trade policy while maintaining a frictionless UK/EU border and maintaining free movement of labour between the UK and the EU subject to various controls and other policy changes. If it proves impossible to negotiate a deal of this kind, most Assembly members preferred the UK to remain closely aligned to the EU rather than to cut loose. Crucially for the next stage of Brexit negotiations, members said the UK should stay in the Single Market and the Customs Union rather than leave the EU with no deal on future relations.
As the UK government and the EU move into the next phase of negotiations, they will be making decisions on the form that Brexit should take that are likely to be the defining political choices of our time. The members of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit spent two weekends discussing these issues with each other and with leading experts. They reflected on their own priorities and the concerns of their fellow Assembly members. They deliberated in depth and delivered recommendations that are coherent and meaningful. They have important things to say, and they ought to be heard.
You can read the full report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit at this link.
About the authors
Dr Rebecca McKee is Research Associate for the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, based at the Constitution Unit.
Dr Alan Renwick is the Director of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, and the Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit.