Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit: full report launched today

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 publishedRebecca 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.

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Is the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit a citizens’ assembly at all?

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, held over two weekends in the autumn, brought together a representative sample of the population to discuss the form Brexit should take with respect to immigration and trade. But, as an unofficial body in contrast to past and present assemblies in Canada, the Netherlands and Ireland, should it really be classed as a proper citizens’ assembly? Graham Smith argues that it meets the most pertinent criteria and therefore should enter the small, but select, pantheon of genuine citizens’ assemblies.

What counts as a ‘citizens’ assembly’? The bar seems to have been set pretty high by the original assemblies in British Columbia (2003), Ontario (2006/7) and the Netherlands (2006), in which 104 to 160 randomly selected citizens met for between 10 and 12 weekends to learn, deliberate and make recommendations on whether new electoral systems ought to be introduced. The current Irish Citizens’ Assembly is running over 16 months, with 99 citizens coming together for 11 weekends working on a range of issues, including abortion, climate change and fixed-term parliaments. In all cases, the assemblies have been sponsored by political authorities.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit (CAB) brought 50 randomly selected citizens together over two weekends in September 2017 to learn, deliberate and make recommendations about trade and immigration policy post-Brexit. But is it too small, too short and too far removed from official decision making processes to be thought of as a ‘proper’ citizens’ assembly?

Are there hard and fast rules here on numbers, length of service and political sponsorship? Are these the characteristics that define a citizens’ assembly as a particular form of deliberative mini-public? It is critical to have standards for different forms of engagement to ensure quality, although it is positive for democratic experimentation and innovation that no one has attempted yet to copyright ‘citizens’ assemblies’ as James Fishkin has done for deliberative polls.

Let us take the relationship with official decision making first. One of the features of previous citizens’ assemblies – and many other deliberative mini-publics – is that their charge is set by those with political authority. This no doubt limits what citizens’ assemblies are asked to work on, but couples them closely to the formal political process. While the Irish Citizens’ Assembly has shown that they can work on the most controversial topics – in this case abortion – this was an issue where the government was glad to pass the buck to a group of citizens. In the UK, this is not the case. The government has not developed a structured approach to engaging citizens on the question of what Brexit should look like. Does that mean a citizens’ assembly should not be organised where there is no explicit sponsorship by political authorities? Surely not. Surely a citizens’ assembly can be used as an intervention by those outside circles of political power in an attempt to change the terms of debate and bring citizens’ voices to bear.

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Prolonging the acquis: a blueprint for the Brexit transition

In a report published this week Piet Eeckhout and Oliver Patel assess the options for a Brexit transitional arrangement. They argue that the most realistic option is for the full body of EU law to continue to apply in the UK, while the UK simultaneously ceases to be an EU member state. The report’s conclusions are summarised here.

They may not see eye to eye on the big issues such as trade and migration, but Theresa May and EU leaders may be closer than you think to agreeing the terms and scope for a transition period. If the latest reports are correct, the prime minister may be about to double her offer on the financial settlement to £38bn in order to unblock the talks before the European Council summit on 14 December.

If she does, she has a realistic route to a deal on the transition. Indeed, the blueprint for a transition period that we advocate as the most viable – where the UK gives up its membership but accepts EU laws lock, stock and barrel – is the one that they are actually edging towards.

You just have to look at May’s Florence speech, in which she made clear that the UK seeks a transition where ‘access to one another’s markets should continue on current terms’, i.e. nothing changes. She even accepted that the framework for this period would be ‘the existing structure of EU rules and regulations’, with David Davis confirming in his speech last Thursday to German business leaders that the UK wants to remain in all EU regulatory agencies during the transition. Similarly, the EU has also indicated that it would accept a status quo transition, but this would require ‘existing union regulatory, budgetary, supervisory, judiciary and enforcement instruments and structures to apply’.

An extension of the EU acquis communautaire (the full body of EU law) to the UK, while the UK simultaneously ceases to be an EU member state, is the obvious choice for the post-Brexit transition. This is for three reasons. First, it’s comprehensive, meaning that very little changes on Brexit day, and a cliff-edge is avoided. Second, it’s relatively straightforward from a legal perspective, at least compared with the other options. The Article 50 withdrawal agreement could be the legal basis, meaning it would require approval only from a qualified majority of the European Council and the European Parliament, but not member state parliaments. It’s simpler than the UK re-joining the EEA Agreement via EFTA or crafting an EEA copycat agreement. The former would require treaty amendment and the approval of member state parliaments, while the latter would require bespoke institutional mechanisms for dispute settlement and enforcement to be set up. Third – and perhaps most importantly – it’s politically feasible.

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Monitor 67: Brexit blues

The latest issue of Monitor, the Constitution Unit’s regular newsletter, has been published today. The issue covers all of the major UK constitutional developments over the past four months, a period that has seen several rounds of Brexit talks, the introduction and second reading of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, the publication of the Burns review on the size of the House of Lords, plus much else besides. The front page article is reproduced here. You can read the full issue at this link

The previous issue of Monitor was published just after the surprise result of the snap general election. The Prime Minister was back at the helm, but with a reduced number of MPs, and dependent on a confidence and supply arrangement with the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). We noted that the road ahead looked rocky.

So it has proved to be – though Theresa May remains in post, and the real parliamentary showdowns seem still to come. The Prime Minister has been dealt an exceptionally difficult hand – managing legislation on Brexit of unprecedented constitutional complexity, alongside the fractious negotiations with the EU, while leading a divided party in a House of Commons in which she has no partisan majority. Over the summer, and particularly during the party conference season, her leadership was regularly questioned, but must gain some stability from the fact that few would really want to be in her shoes. Meanwhile, rumours suggest that she has used the threat of a Boris Johnson premiership to coax other EU leaders to the negotiating table.

As discussed on pages 2–3, the official Brexit negotiations have made slow progress. Despite Theresa May’s attempted injection of momentum through her Florence speech in September, EU partners have not yet agreed to move on to ‘Phase II’ (i.e. post-Brexit trade arrangements), and a serious sticking point remains the so-called ‘divorce bill’. Partly as a consequence, the prospect of a ‘no deal’ outcome has increasingly been talked up. This is presented by some in the Conservative Party as a necessary negotiating strategy to get the EU-27 to give the UK what it wants, but others seem to view it with a degree of relish. Meanwhile, business groups appear to be increasingly concerned.

One thing that remains little-known is the state of public opinion, and how that may develop. While the June 2016 referendum came up with a Leave result, today’s question of what Leave should mean is a good deal more complex. As such, it is not readily suited to opinion polling. Here the results of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, run by a team led from the Constitution Unit and funded by the ESRC (see page 15), can shed some useful light. Assembly members, who included more Leave than Remain supporters, expressed a preference for the kind of bespoke trade deal that the government says it is seeking. But members were very clear that if this cannot be achieved, a ‘no deal’ outcome was undesirable. They preferred that the UK remained a member of the Single Market and Customs Union to this. Politicians should reflect on such findings carefully, because boxing themselves in to no deal could prove electorally dangerous.

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Report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit: the public reject ‘no deal’

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit has just published its first report. Building on findings previously reported on this blog, it sets out how the Citizens’ Assembly operated and what conclusions it reached. Alan Renwick offers a summary and gives a foretaste of the work that is still to come in ensuring that policy-makers can hear what the members of the Assembly have to say.

The public would prefer the UK to stay in the Single Market and the Customs Union than do no deal on future relations with the EU. Some politicians might be talking tough, but that is not what their voters actually want.

This is the core message that comes through the summary report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, which was published yesterday. Recent weeks have seen increasing talk among some politicians and commentators about the possibility of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. But when voters in the Citizens’ Assembly heard the arguments and facts on all sides, they viewed remaining in the Single Market and the Customs Union as preferable to simply walking away without a deal.

What is the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit?

As explained in detail in the report, the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit was held over two weekends in September 2017. It brought together 50 randomly selected citizens who reflected the diversity of the UK electorate, including a majority who supported the Leave option in the referendum last year. The project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) through its UK in a Changing Europe programme. It aims to provide much needed, robust public input into the Brexit process and to show the value of informed and in-depth public engagement on controversial areas of public policy.

The Assembly addressed the question of what form its members would like Brexit to take. We did not attempt to reopen the issue of whether Brexit should happen. Rather, we sought to learn about informed public preferences for the Brexit negotiations that are currently taking place.

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The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit: how did it work?

The conclusions reached by the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, composed of a politically and demographically representative group of 50 members of the public, were reported on this blog yesterday. In this post the Assembly’s Design and Facilitation Lead Sarah Allan tells the story of how the Assembly’s two weekends worked. 

Last weekend saw the finale of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit (CAB) and the announcement of its results. By its end, 50 members of the public – broadly representative of the UK population in terms of age, sex, ethnicity, social class, where they lived, and how they voted in last year’s referendum – had spent around twenty-eight hours considering what the UK’s trade and immigration policy should be post-Brexit.

The Assembly demonstrated not only that citizens can have a detailed and constructive conversation about options for Brexit, but also that they can enjoy doing it. Assembly members rated the Assembly an average of 5.5 out of 6 across the two weekends, with 86% of Assembly members saying they ‘strongly agreed’ with the statement ‘Assemblies like this should be used more often to inform government decision-making.’ A further 8% ‘agreed’.

So how did the Assembly work? This post tells the story of its two weekends.

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Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit: results and initial reflections

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit reached its climax yesterday. After two weekends of intense deliberation, the members voted on a range of options for the form they want Brexit to take in relation to trade and immigration. Their conclusions will surprise some, and they deserve detailed attention from politicians and commentators. Assembly Director Alan Renwick summarises these conclusions and reflects on the weekend as a whole. He argues that, while the Brexit debate is often presented in stark binary terms, the Citizens’ Assembly suggests that the British public are capable of much subtler thinking – if only they are given the chance.

In my last post on the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, I reported on a hugely successful first weekend of deliberations. In advance, we had, through stratified random selection, recruited a group of Assembly members who reflected the composition of the UK electorate in terms of age, sex, ethnicity, social class, where they lived, and how they voted in last year’s referendum (25 voted Leave, 22 voted Remain, and three did not vote). We had also developed a programme and set of briefing papers that had been vetted by our advisory board, comprising supporters of both sides in the referendum, as well as experts in balanced communication. At the first weekend itself, remarkably, every Assembly member attended. They showed immense dedication, working long hours as they reflected on their own views, discussed ideas with fellow members, listened to experts, and quizzed those experts in depth. The experts presented diverse perspectives, some emphasising the benefits of single market membership or immigration, while others pointed out the costs of high immigration or argued for the advantages of cutting free from the single market and customs union. Our team of professional facilitators from Involve did a superb job of guiding proceedings and keeping the discussions on track.

This time I can report on an equally successful second – and final – weekend. Attendance was again astonishingly high: every member but one (who was ill) returned. Once again, all (and I do mean all) were tremendously focused and limitlessly good humoured. Members naturally did not always share each other’s views, but they listened and spoke respectfully and genuinely. Our facilitation and support teams were again inspirational. It was a privilege to be there.

While the first weekend focused on learning, the second was all about deliberation and decision-making. We began on Friday evening with short talks and Q&A sessions with two prominent politicians: Graham Brady MP, chair of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, spoke for leaving the single market and customs union; Labour MP Kate Green advocated the opposite. Thereafter, there were no more external speakers. The weekend was devoted to the Assembly members, who reflected on what they wanted post-Brexit policy-making to achieve and then on which policy options they wanted the government to pursue.

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