It’s a threat to democracy, but not as we know it...

What if Labour won the 2003 election after Malta had voted to join the EU in a referendum?

Let’s try a little experiment, shall we? Cast your minds back to 2003 – the year of the EU referendum/general election – and imagine for a moment what might have happened had things turned out differently.

Not in the sense that ‘Partnership won’ – because, let’s face it, it was (and still is) impossible to predict the consequences of a ‘No-Deal Deal’ with the EU, of the kind Alfred Sant was proposing at the time.

No, in the sense that Malta did indeed vote to join the EU in 2003… but, for whatever reason, never actually joined.

It could very easily have happened, you know. For starters, let’s not forget that it took an election, held three months later, to actually seal Malta’s accession the following year. As I recall, the No campaign didn’t accept the result of what it kept insisting was merely a ‘consultative’ referendum; and while its core argument – i.e., that abstentions should be counted as ‘Nos’ – was clearly flawed, from a purely technical angle it is true that the referendum, on its own, was never legally binding to begin with.

As such, if the Labour Party won the 2003 election – or even if Eddie won all the same, but then suffered a mild concussion which altered his opinions about EU membership – the incoming government would have been fully within its legal rights to just ignore the EU referendum result.

But of course, referendum results are things you ignore at your own risk; and to do it just three months later would be the equivalent of simply telling the entire electorate to go stuff itself, and to hell with the consequences.

Unsurprisingly, then, the electorate responded in kind: delivering exactly the same verdict in the 2003 election - 52%/48% - as it had in the referendum three months earlier (which, I suppose, was just another way of politely telling Alfred Sant where he could stuff his Partnership proposal instead.)

But for the moment, let’s stick to actual history only up until the 2003 election result. Malta voted to join the EU in March; and in May, the pro-accession party was comfortably returned to power in a general election, confirming the referendum result.

All that remained was for Eddie Fenech Adami and Joe Borg to sign the Accession Treaty on the dotted line (which they did, the following April); but, for the purposes of this experiment… let’s pretend that that just never happened at all; that even today – 16 years after voting to join the EU – Malta was still a non-EU country.

Again, there are any number of historical permutations that could have yielded that result. Earlier I joked about Eddie Fenech Adami ‘changing his mind’… well, stranger things have been known to happen.

In the mid-1950s, Dom Mintoff shifted his position from ‘Integration with Britain’, to ‘Britain Go Home’: just like that, in the blink of an eye.
And only a few years ago, I seem to remember a young, ambitious One TV journalist who was actively campaigning (along with the rest of his party) against EU membership, in accordance with the Alfred Sant script. Whatever happened to him in the end, I wonder? Oh look, there he is: sitting in the Prime Minister’s chair in Castile, and behaving for all the world as if he actually invented the EU himself...

Honestly, who would ever have guessed?

But there are other, more realistic ways it could have happened. We all saw, a few years later, how Lawrence Gonzi’s grip on power was undermined by a handful of rebellious backbencher MPs…. to the extent that, at one point, he even extended Parliament’s summer recess, to avoid the possibility of facing a vote of confidence. (Sounds vaguely familiar, doesn’t it? But more of this later.)

With hindsight, Eddie Fenech Adami was never particularly prone to backbencher revolts, or anything similar. But the same cannot be said for the PN as a whole: it was, in fact, a backbencher revolt against George Borg Olivier that had propelled Eddie to the leadership in the first place.

It is by no means inconceivable, then, that history could have repeated itself. It is widely known that (future President) Censu Tabone was initially sceptical about the whole EU idea; reportedly, it took a little of Guido De Marco’s ‘politics of persuasion’ to get him to see the light.
Just imagine that Guido had failed; and that Censu Tabone was not alone in his initial Euroscepticism. And there you have it. Eddie Fenech Adami might have faced a similar situation after the 2003 election… possibly even to the extent of losing his majority.

Even more specifically…  Malta’s Parliament might, under those circumstances, have rejected his celebrated ‘deal’ (‘il-pakkett’, remember?) with the EU: not once, not twice, but three times in quick succession…

OK, by now you will surely have realised where all this is heading. With only a few minor alterations, the above scenario is almost identical to the one facing the United Kingdom right now.

Three years ago, the people of Britain voted in a referendum on EU membership; and as far as I can see, the verdict was pretty straightforward. Brexit won, Remain lost… and interestingly enough, by a margin that was almost exactly the same as ours (only the other way round).

Yet today – three whole years later – the UK is still an EU member state: partly because Britain’s House of Commons has since then rejected Theresa May’s ‘deal’ with the EU… not once, not twice, but three times in quick succession.

Hence that little experiment we’re conducting. How would we have reacted, had the same thing happened here in 2003? What would the 52% majority have had to say, about a 48% minority that simply hijacked the future they had voted for – ‘for themselves, for their children’, remember? – on the basis that it just doggedly refused to ever accept the result of a democratic vote that did not go its own way?  

To be perfectly honest, I shudder to think. We came close enough to all-out violence in 2003… when both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigners took to the streets at the same time, to celebrate a victory they both claimed as their own. Can you just imagine what (if anything) would even be left of Malta today… if that act of defiance was extended beyond the subsequent election, with the result that we never actually joined Europe at all?

Nor is this the only similarity. Just like our own referendum was somehow ‘won’ by both sides… both sides in the Brexit debate seem to think they are representing the interests of democracy itself.

Like Malta’s ‘Yes’ voters in 2003, today’s Brexiteers are defending a legitimate, democratic victory at the polls, against a minority which – not unlike Sant’s Partnership campaign – is actively trying to subvert the referendum result.

Yet even as I write, people are gathering in London for a public protest to ‘defend British democracy’… against a government that is ultimately only ‘threatening’ to deliver on a three-year-old electoral mandate.

About the only real difference I can see between that, and the hypothetical scenario I described above, is that… well, one remains purely hypothetical, 15 years after the event; while the other is looking more like a distinct possibility by the minute… three whole years later.

The equivalent would be Malta still not having introduced divorce (another ‘hypothetical possibility’ we must con-sider, given that there was resistance there, too) despite the Yes campaign having won the divorce referendum, fair and square, in 2011.

Would ‘Yes’ voters have accepted that outcome, do you reckon?

Or would their howls of democratic outrage be still reverberating in all directions across the Mediterranean, and beyond?

From this perspective, I can only marvel at the patience and restraint of those tens of millions of British voters who have been denied the future they voted for – ‘for themselves, their children’, etc. – for so long.

Any other country would be aflame with riots by now; but I guess it must have something to do with the classic British ‘stiff upper lip’, and all that.

Maybe they’re still discussing how to react over tea and biscuits; or maybe it takes longer than three years to form the ‘orderly, disciplined queue’ British people seem to insist on in all matters… like getting on a bus, for instance… or starting a revolution…

But whatever the reason, it is – like Brexit itself – the sole affair of the British people themselves. In fact, I still haven’t fully understood why so many non-British Europeans seem to take such mortal, personal offence at what was, after all, the UK’s decision to determine its own political destiny… just like our own decision to join the EU in 2003 (only, as usual, the other way round).

The repercussions on the democratic process itself, however, are another matter. After all, one does have to ques-tion the democratic credentials of so many people who seem to think that their own political opinions – however sensible these may sound, to their own ears – are enough to simply overturn the result of a perfectly legal referendum: on Brexit, or any other issue.

Otherwise, by their own logic… Alfred Sant would have been right, to persist with his ‘Partnership won’ interpretation, even beyond the 2003 election result. And any political party, anywhere in the world, would be justified in simply disregarding the result of any election it did not win…. on the basis that… um… I don’t know, actually.

What sort of justification could there possibly be, anyway, for only ever accepting a democratic verdict when it suits your own political agenda?

That, as far as I can see, is the only real ‘democratic threat’ in this entire Brexit business; and… do I still even need to spell it out?... it is no different from the threat we all saw, and experienced, back in 2003…

… only – yes, you guessed it – the other way round.

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