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The Public Must Be Heard In The EU Negotiations

29/09/2017 08:00 | Updated 29 September 2017

This weekend, over 50 randomly-selected members of the public will add something that has been missing from the Brexit debate: the voice of voters.

The general election campaign in June saw little discussion of the most pressing economic, political and constitutional issue of our time - Britain's departure from the EU.

The sense that major decisions are being taken behind closed doors continues. Last week in Florence, the Prime Minister set out Britain's latest Brexit position in a speech that owed more to internal Conservative Party management than it did to the national interest. And despite a lively discussion on its fringe, the Labour Party conference has sought to avoid an official debate and vote on Brexit altogether.

By and large, our political parties have failed to articulate the contradictions and trade offs of our future relationship with the EU preferring to hide behind our ability to "have our cake and eat it".

Meanwhile, the nuances of public opinion are lost behind an avalanche of opinion polls and focus groups which can offer only a tiny glimpse of emerging views on the highly complex and contested decisions that need to be made, on everything from the customs union to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. The UK desperately needs a process which brings together people of all persuasions to find common ground.

This is not a radical approach: when other countries see rifts opened or aggravated by big constitutional questions, they are increasingly turning to an interesting model for closing the gap: the 'citizens' assembly'.

Ireland's constitutional convention, established to look at a swathe of constitutional issues, is one such example - and it led to the legalisation on equal marriage. Indeed, a subsequent assembly could soon lead to a referendum on the legalisation of abortion.

In the UK, we now have an opportunity to get to grips with the greatest controversies of our time - from single market membership to immigration rules to our regulatory framework.

The Citizens' Assembly on Brexit, taking place in Manchester, brings together a representative group of members of the public from across the UK to engage in reflective and informed discussions about what our relationship with the EU should look like after we leave. Crucially, they will vote on what a final deal should look like.

The project, organised by leading universities and civil society organisations, has secured backing from across the so-called 'Brexit divide' - from MPs Chuka Umunna and Nicky Morgan on the Remain side to Leave's Bernard Jenkin MP and UKIP's Suzanne Evans. This assembly has the opportunity to unite different sides around a balanced and robust process.

Earlier this month, the Citizens' Assembly on Brexit's first weekend brought together a diverse range of citizens - recruited to reflect the make-up of the electorate - to deliberate on the Brexit process. They heard from all sides and discussed the big issues. This weekend, they will make their recommendations on our departure from the EU.

The backers of this initiative are from a range of backgrounds and persuasions. We disagree fundamentally on some major questions around Brexit. But we are drawn together in our belief that the huge decisions to be made about how to leave the EU should be opened up to the public.

The referendum last June decided that the UK will leave the European Union, but debates during the campaign and since have given citizens little opportunity to discuss what form they want Brexit to take. This Citizens' Assembly on Brexit is designed to fill that gap.

As the Conservatives gather in Manchester for their conference, they would do well to listen - as would politicians on all sides. The public must be involved in meaningful deliberation on one of the most pressing constitutional issues of our time. It is time citizens' voices were heard in the EU negotiations.

Will Straw was Executive Director of Britain Stronger in Europe, the official 'Remain' campaign

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