The citizens’ assembly on Brexit: public to debate UK’s exit terms

Leading academics and democracy campaigners are to hold a ‘Citizens’ Assembly’ on Brexit this September, in a bid to raise the quality of public debate around the options for leaving the EU.

The project, which officially launched yesterday in Parliament, is part of the ESRC-funded ‘UK in a Changing Europe’ initiative, and will bring together a diverse sample of citizens to contribute to the Brexit process in person – providing the first example of meaningful public deliberation on what form Brexit should take.

The process is being organised by leading academics at UCL’s prestigious Constitution Unit, in partnership with the University of Westminster’s Centre for the Study of Democracy, the University of Southampton, Involve, and the Electoral Reform Society.

Over two weekends in September in Manchester (the 8 and 29) – just as the Brexit negotiations start to move beyond preliminaries – citizens will focus on choices relating to trade and immigration, and the implications of these on issues such as the economy, jobs, public services and the degree to which the UK can control its own affairs.

A diverse group of voters will learn about the options for Brexit, hearing from a wide range of experts and campaigners from all sides of the debate, and deliberate on what they have heard.

Crucially, the Assembly will then agree recommendations that will be written up in a final report and presented to key decision makers at a high-profile Westminster event.

The project has secured high-profile backing from across the spectrum, including Stephen Kinnock MP, Bernard Jenkin MP, Chuka Umunna MP, leading Brexit campaigners Harsimrat Kaur and John Mills, Britain Stronger in Europe Director Will Straw, UKIP’s Suzanne Evans, and senior European academic Anand Menon. For full quotes from leading figures see here.

Dr Alan Renwick, Principal Investigator, said:

“The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit is a chance to explore how deliberative democratic approaches can improve the quality of public discussion around contentious policy issues.

“The referendum last June decided that the UK will leave the European Union. But debates during the campaign and since have given voters little opportunity to formulate – far less, express – clear views on the form they want Brexit to take. This Citizens’ Assembly is designed to fill that gap. It should give policy-makers in government and parliament valuable evidence as to where public priorities really lie.”

 

Darren Hughes, Acting Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said:

“The idea there’s an unsolvable rift between ‘52 per cent’ and ‘48 per cent’ is a myth. We know given the chance to talk to each other and meaningfully engage in the issues, people have much more in common than many realise. This is a real opportunity to bring people together from all sides.

“There is widespread agreement that the Brexit plans should respect and respond to public opinion – as demanded by both democratic principle and the need for broad public legitimacy. This Assembly is a unique and innovative way to gauge the opinions of citizens on the most pressing constitutional issue we face as a country.

“Public engagement in major constitutional issues like this shouldn’t end on polling day. This project is an exciting way of continuing the public engagement we saw last year – and letting voters influence the debate.”

 

The project team already has expertise in running similar assemblies – including conducting the UK’s first assemblies on local devolution in Sheffield and Southampton in late 2015.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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