In 2017, a two-weekend Citizens' Assembly on post-Brexit EU relations was attended by a representative sample of UK citizens. The deliberations provided invaluable insight into public opinion on the issue for use by researchers and policy makers.
Problems and Purpose
The outcome of the 2016 United Kingdom European Union membership referendum (Brexit referendum) established that the majority of those voting in the referendum wanted to leave the EU. However, the outcome of this referendum did not indicate what the public believed the UK’s future relationship with the EU should be. The government and the EU have negotiated with only a limited understanding of the priorities of the UK electorate. The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit was therefore established for a diverse group of individuals to learn about issues of trade and migration from a variety of experts and politicians, deliberate with each other and come to recommendations on what form Brexit should take. The Assembly was held in September 2017 over two weekends, totaling around twenty-eight hours of consideration. The project was run as part of an academic research project led by the Constitution Unit at University College London.
Background History and Context
The Brexit referendum took place on 23 June 2016 and presented the question of whether the UK should remain within or leave the EU. Of those who voted, 51.9% supported leaving the EU. The government initiated the official withdrawal process on 29 March 2017, which puts the UK on course to complete the withdrawal process by 29 March 2019. Despite ongoing negotiations, following the referendum the British public were offered neither the opportunity to vocalize what form Brexit should take, nor to weigh in on the future of the UK’s relationship with the EU.
Given this, the need for a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit was great. Brexit stood as the biggest set of decisions to face the UK political system since the 1940s. Quality, informed debate about the kind of Brexit that the British public wanted was vitally important, but it had not happened on anything like the scale it could have. This Citizens' Assembly was designed to provide that debate in a microcosm to demonstrate what a diverse sample of the UK electorate concluded about the Brexit options when they had had the chance to learn about them, listen to the arguments, and reflect on their own preferences and those of their fellow citizens. Following its completion, organizers of the Citizens' Assembly said that the process provided a unique insight into public priorities for Brexit.
Notable Citizens’ Assemblies prior to the one on Brexit focused on topics such as: electoral reform (2004 British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly; 2006 Dutch Civic Forum; and 2006-7 Ontario Citizens’ Assembly); devolution (2015 Assembly North in Sheffield and 2015 Assembly South in Southampton); and other constitutional issues (2012-14 Irish Constitutional Convention and 2016-18 Irish Citizens’ Assembly).
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The Assembly was organized and led in 2017 by the Constitution Unit at University College London. It was supported by an independent group of academics and civil society organizations: the University of Westminster, University of Southampton, the Electoral Reform Society, and Involve. The design of the weekends and the content of the briefing papers were developed in close consultation with a diverse Advisory Board. The project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its UK in a Changing Europe programme.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The Assembly was comprised of fifty members of the general public. They were selected via an online panel-based survey with thirty-nine questions that was administered to a sample of 5000 respondents. The fifty members were selected randomly from this pool to reflect, as far as is feasible within a group of this size, the demographic and attitudinal characteristics of the wider British population. This was in terms of age, sex, ethnicity, social class, place of residence, and referendum vote. Unlike previous Citizens’ Assembly projects, this Assembly was unique in choosing to stratify on an attitudinal basis. Overall, the members were demographically and attitudinally well-matched to the broader British population. To incentivize participation in the Assembly, those who volunteered and were selected to participate within the project were offered £200 for each weekend they attended, in addition to expenses for all associated travel costs and accommodation in a 4-star hotel.
Methods and Tools Used
A Citizens’ Assembly is a body of randomly selected citizens who meet to learn about the issues at stake, hear from and question experts, campaigners, and others with relevant insights, and reflect on their own views and those of their fellow members. They then deliberate in-depth before reaching conclusions.
Tools and techniques:
The Assembly was designed with five key principles in mind: (1) fostering inclusion of all members, from all parts of society; (2) enabling the development of deep understanding of the issues in hand; (3) maintaining balance among competing perspectives on Brexit; (4) encouraging open-minded deliberation; and (5) helping all members to engage in personal reflection. These principles were captured in a series of basic features of Assembly design. Much of the business was conducted through small-group discussions, with seven or eight members per group. These groups and the Assembly overall were directed by professional and experienced facilitators. Clear, conversational guidelines were established and agreed upon. Expert advice and briefing materials were prepared. A variety of expert academics, politicians, and practitioners spoke at the weekends and answered questions posed by the citizen members.
Detailed briefing papers were also provided that outlined the issues on the agenda. These included: an introductory briefing paper sent ahead of the first weekend; background papers explaining the EU, the Brexit process, and the concept of a Citizens’ Assembly; papers on trade; and papers on immigration.
The design of the weekends and the content of the briefing papers were developed in close consultation with a diverse advisory board. Careful attention was also given to a range of other design elements, such as the structuring of discussions within the Assembly; the scheduling of all aspects of the Assembly’s work; the development of good relations with recruited members before the first weekend; and the selection of a suitable venue and maintenance of regular communications with the venue managers.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The first weekend provided an opportunity for Assembly Members to learn about the Brexit issues from experts and each other; the second allowed them to deliberate on the options before reaching conclusions. The following is a chronological list of the events of the two weekends.
Weekend one: The ‘learning weekend’
The first weekend aimed to give Assembly members the chance to:
· Hear and explore key information on trade and migration;
· Have their questions answered;
· Think about and identify the arguments and issues they found most important;
· Find out more about the views of their fellow Assembly Members.
The Assembly process began on Friday evening with two brief exercises: one to explore members’ hopes and fears for the weekend ahead, and another to set the aforementioned conversation guidelines. Members reconvened on Saturday for a detailed introduction to the Assembly – including its aims, personnel and funders – and an icebreaker. This was followed by the first main exercise: a discussion of what members valued, and would like to be able to value about the country they live in. The purpose of this exercise was to give members a prism through which to view the rest of the weekend’s proceedings. Ideas put forward by members and voted as important by at least one of them were collected and saved for later.
The first panel provided members with an introduction to the EU, UK and Brexit, and the issues – trade and migration – on which the Assembly would focus. Members were introduced to key concepts, including tariff and non-tariff barriers, the single market and the customs union, and immigration and emigration. No arguments were made at this stage about the relative merits or importance of any of the ideas introduced. At the end of the presentations, members discussed potential questions to ask the speakers. Three tables asked their priority questions to the panel speakers, with any questions left unanswered at the end of the session collected for future reference. The other four tables reviewed a themed wall display of their values from the earlier session. Each member wrote a postcard to themselves listing the five things they most want to be able to value about the country in which they live. The groups then reversed.
Saturday afternoon started with the Assembly’s second panel, which focused on trade. Four speakers – two emphasizing the benefits of the single market and customs union to the UK, and two emphasizing the advantages of cutting free – presented their arguments. Two further experts followed with brief reflections on what they had heard. After the presentations, members worked at their tables to discuss and prioritize questions for all six speakers. Speakers then visited each table, spending ten minutes answering questions. Any questions left unanswered at the end of the session were collected for future reference. The Assembly’s first proper deliberation then took place. Members each wrote a postcard to themselves capturing the five most important arguments, issues or points they felt they’d heard on trade, and then discussed and agreed on the eight considerations related to trade that felt most important to them collectively as a table.
Sunday saw a repeat of this process for migration. Members heard from a third panel focused on migration, asked them their priority questions (in split plenary this time, not at tables), wrote a postcard to themselves about the most important arguments they had heard and agreed their top eight considerations as a table. This was the end of weekend one.
Weekend two: the ‘discussion and decision weekend’
The aim of weekend two was for Members to discuss the options and reach decisions on:
· Guidelines to inform what the UK’s trade and migration policy should be after Brexit;
· What the UK’s policy post-Brexit should be on (1) trade with the EU, (2) trade with countries outside of the EU, and (3) migration;
· How to fit trade and migration preferences together.
Friday night was dedicated to answering the unanswered questions from weekend one. It also saw two guest speakers address members and answer their questions. Graham Brady MP spoke for leaving the single market and customs union; Labour MP Kate Green advocated the opposite. On Saturday morning members’ first task was to review the themed wall chart on values from weekend one, and the postcard they had written on the same subject. They then voted on the values that were most important to them. From there, members were asked to decide their guidelines for the UK government on what the UK’s trade policy should be after Brexit. They reviewed their trade postcards to themselves, and the top eight trade considerations put forward by all tables in weekend one. Members then worked at their tables to decide their five to six priority endings to the sentence, ‘The UK’s trade policy after Brexit should....’. Their answers were collected in, entered into the online voting platform Mentimeter and then voted on. The results of this vote and all subsequent ones were published and permanently recorded online. This process was then repeated to determine the Assembly’s guidelines for the UK government on what the UK’s migration policy should be after Brexit.
The processes on voting for all three decisions (on trade with the EU, trade beyond the EU, and migration) were the same. Firstly, the Assembly’s Director, Dr. Alan Renwick, presented a range of policy options to Assembly members. Tables then spent an extended amount of time discussing the pros and cons of each option and attempting to rank the options as a table. This enabled Members to explore and argue the case for each alternative. Finally, Members voted individually, ranking the options in their order of preference. Outcomes were decided by assigning three points to a first preference, two to a second preference, one to a third preference, and none to a fourth preference. All the vote results were announced at the end of the migration discussion, mid-morning on Sunday.
The following voting results were adapted from the Summary Report on the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit
In regards to trade with the EU, the members were offered four options:
A. Stay in the Single Market as it related to goods and services;
B. Leave the Single Market, and seek a comprehensive trade deal that would keep trade with the EU as open as possible by maintaining zero tariffs and minimizing non-tariff barriers through harmonization and mutual recognition;
C. Leave the Single Market and seek a limited trade deal that would maintain zero tariffs, but not address non-tariff barriers;
D. Do no trade deal with the EU.
When taking into account members’ first preferences, the most popular was Option C (38%). However, taking into account multiple preferences, the most popular outcome was Option B (34%). If forced to choose, members preferred remaining in the Single Market (Option A) over doing no trade deal at all with the EU (Option D) (62%).
In regards to trade beyond the EU, the members were offered three options:
A. Stay in the Customs Union, so that the UK adheres to EU external tariffs and trade deals;
B. Do a customs deal allowing the UK to conduct its own international trade policy while maintaining a frictionless UK/EU border;
C. Do no customs deal, so that the UK can conduct its own trade policy, but physical customs controls are needed.
The majority of members preferred Option B (70%). If such a bespoke deal was not possible, they preferred to stay in the Customs Union (Option A) than to leave the EU with no deal (Option C) (74%).
In regards to migration between the UK and the EU, the members were offered five options:
A. Maintain free movement of labour as now;
B. Maintain free movement of labour, but make full use of available controls to prevent abuse of the system;
C. End free movement and reduce immigration overall, but continue giving EU citizens favourable access compared with people from outside the EU;
D. Remove any preference for EU over non-EU citizens, while maintaining current immigration levels;
E. Remove any preference for EU over non-EU citizens, and reduce immigration overall.
The majority of Members (52%) preferred Option B.
Finally, the Assembly members were offered six Brexit packages that have been covered by the main political debates in the UK. These were:
A. Stay in the Single Market, with free movement of labour as now;
B. Stay in the Single Market, with free movement subject to all available controls;
C. Do a comprehensive trade deal with the EU, without giving favourable access for EU citizens short of free movement;
D. Do a limited trade deal with the EU, without giving favourable access for EU citizens;
E. Do not trade deal with the EU, and allow EU citizens favourable access or free movement;
F. Do no trade deal with the EU, and allow EU citizens no favourable access.
In terms of first preferences, Option C gained the most support (32%). Taking account of multiple preferences, a tie emerged between Option C (25%) and Option B (25%). Again, in the event that it transpired that no trade deal was possible, members strongly favoured staying in the Single Market (Option B) over doing no deal (Option F) (60%).
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The Assembly offered a model for how high-quality democratic discussion might be fostered on a wide range of issues in the future. It showed that the deliberative approach can be employed successfully even on contentious and polarizing issues such as Brexit. Governments, parliamentarians, councillors and others with political power should be encouraged to think carefully about how to design public participation so that engagement is meaningful for both citizens and decision-makers. It is challenging to know the overall impact of the Assembly at this stage as negotiations are ongoing; nonetheless the attention the Assembly’s findings have received in the media and in Parliament thus far suggest that the recommendations are being listened to.
The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit's final decisions and recommendations have received notable mentions in the media from the Financial Times, Prospect, and the Guardian, amongst others. Dr. Alan Renwick has also given evidence to the Home Affairs Committee on the Assembly’s conclusion in relation to migration; and, along with colleagues from the Assembly, to the EU Committee of the House of Lords. The work of the Assembly was also mentioned in the Report Stage of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill by Stephen Doughty MP.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Overall, the British public’s opinion on the form that Brexit should take has not been well-informed. Citizens find it hard to access balanced information and debates are highly politicized. The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit went further than any previous exercise in revealing what members of the public thought about the options for Brexit when they had the chance to learn about the issues, consider their own priorities, and work out the future policy direction they supported. It revealed a much more nuanced picture of public opinion than many had come to expect. The recommendations of the Assembly ran counter to the position advocated by various leading politicians who talked up the ‘no deal’ option if a favourable trade deal could not be reached with the EU and who stressed the over-riding importance of strong control over immigration.
The Assembly performed very well against the following established evaluation criteria. First, its membership closely mirrored the diverse composition of the UK electorate; the approach to recruitment and stratification worked well. Second, the Assembly fulfilled the five design principles – inclusion, understanding, balance, deliberation, and personal reflection – to an impressively high level given the contentious nature of the topic. Third, the conclusions reached by the Assembly were clear and consistent. Fourthly, the Assembly was rated highly by participants, with 86% of Members saying they ‘strongly agreed’ with the statement ‘Assemblies like this should be used more often to inform government decision-making’.
Citizens' Assembly (method)
UK Referendum on EU Membership (case)
Sheffield Citizens' Assembly on Devolution (case)
Citizens' Assembly on Social Care (case)
1. “Introduction to the EU and Brexit,” Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, September 2017, http://citizensassembly.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/CAB-Panel-1-Introduction-to-the-EU-and-Brexit.pdf.
2. Renwick, Alan, “The EU referendum, one year on: public debate,” The Constitution Unit Blog, June 23, 2017, https://constitution-unit.com/2017/06/23/the-eu-referendum-one-year-on-public-debate/.
3. “About the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit,” Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, July 17, 2017. https://citizensassembly.co.uk/brexit/about/.
4. Renwick, Alan, Sarah Allan, Will Jennings, Rebecca McKee, Meg Russel, Graham Smith, A Considered Public Voice on Brexit: The Report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit (London: University College London, 2017), 6-7, https://citizensassembly.co.uk/full-report-citizens-assembly-brexit/.
5. Hunt, Alex, and Brian Wheeler. “Brexit: All You Need to Know about the UK Leaving the EU.” BBC News, January 21, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-32810887.
6. “The EU referendum, one year on: public debate.”
7. “Summary Report,” Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, November 19, 2017, http://citizensassembly.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/CAB-summary-report.pdf
8. Renwick, Alan, Rebecca McKee, “The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit: design and purpose,” The Constitution Blog, August 30, 2017, https://constitution-unit.com/2017/08/30/the-citizens-assembly-on-brexit-design-and-purpose/.
9. “Meet the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit Project Team,” Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, August 13, 2017, https://citizensassembly.co.uk/brexit/about/project-team/.
10. “Advisory Board,” Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, September 14, 2017, https://citizensassembly.co.uk/brexit/about/advisory-board/.
11. “Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit,” UK in a Changing Europe, last modified January 10, 2018, http://ukandeu.ac.uk/brexitresearch/citizens-assembly-on-brexit/.
12. Renwick, Alan, Sarah Allan, Will Jennings, Rebecca McKee, Meg Russel, Graham Smith, A Considered Public Voice on Brexit: The Report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, 20-22.
13. Renwick, Alan, Sarah Allan, Will Jennings, Rebecca McKee, Meg Russel, Graham Smith, A Considered Public Voice on Brexit: The Report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, 22.
14. “Frequently Asked Questions,” Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, September 6, 2017, https://citizensassembly.co.uk/brexit/about/faq/.
15. Renwick, Alan, Sarah Allan, Will Jennings, Rebecca McKee, Meg Russel, Graham Smith, A Considered Public Voice on Brexit: The Report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, 34-35.
16. “Weekend One’s Speakers,” Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, Accessed January 24, 2019, http://citizensassembly.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Citizens-Assembly_Meet-the-Speakers.pdf.
17. “Briefing Papers,” Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, last modified October 7, 2017, https://citizensassembly.co.uk/brexit/resources/background/.
18. Allan, Sarah. “The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit: How Did It Work?” The Constitution Unit Blog. The Constitution Unit Blog, October 3, 2017. https://constitution-unit.com/2017/10/03/the-citizens-assembly-on-brexit-how-did-it-work/.
19. Renwick, Alan, Sarah Allan, Will Jennings, Rebecca McKee, Meg Russel, Graham Smith, A Considered Public Voice on Brexit: The Report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, 42-43.
20. Renwick, Alan, Sarah Allan, Will Jennings, Rebecca McKee, Meg Russel, Graham Smith, A Considered Public Voice on Brexit: The Report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, 44.
21. Allan, Sarah. “The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit: How Did It Work?” The Constitution Unit Blog. The Constitution Unit Blog, October 3, 2017. https://constitution-unit.com/2017/10/03/the-citizens-assembly-on-brexit-how-did-it-work/.
22. “Voting Results,” Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, October 2017. http://citizensassembly.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Voting-results.pdf
23. Renwick, Alan, Sarah Allan, Will Jennings, Rebecca McKee, Meg Russel, Graham Smith, A Considered Public Voice on Brexit: The Report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, 47-48.
24. “Summary Report,” Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, November 19, 2017, http://citizensassembly.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/CAB-summary-report.pdf
25. Graham Smith, “Is the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit a citizens’ assembly at all?,” The Constitution Blog, December 6, 2017, https://constitution-unit.com/2017/12/06/is-the-citizens-assembly-on-brexit-a-citizens-assembly-at-all/.
26. “Endorsements,” Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, July 17, 2017, https://citizensassembly.co.uk/brexit/about/#endorsements.
27. Blitz, James, “Cutting through the Brexit cacophony,” Financial Times, October 3, 2017. https://www.ft.com/content/7ca75bcc-a82c-11e7-ab55-27219df83c97?mhq5j=e7
28. Toynbee, Polly. “Proud of Themselves? The Tory Brexit Rebels Certainly Should Be,” The Guardian, February 14, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/dec/14/proud-tory-brexit-rebels-parliament-mutineers.
29. Home Affairs Committee. “Oral Evidence - Immigration Policy: Principles for Building Consensus - 31 Oct 2017.” House of Commons, October 31, 2017. http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/home-affairs-committee/immigration-policy-principles-for-building-consensus/oral/72388.html.
30. “House of Commons Wednesday 17 January 2018.” Parliamentlive.Tv, January 17, 2017. https://www.parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/c5dd2388-192e-4074-8224-9c0be72c1bc4.
31. “Summary Report,” 2.
32. Renwick, Alan, Rebecca McKee, “The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit: design and purpose,” The Constitution Blog, August 30, 2017, https://constitution-unit.com/2017/08/30/the-citizens-assembly-on-brexit-design-and-purpose/.
33. “Summary Report,” 7.
34. Renwick, Alan, Sarah Allan, Will Jennings, Rebecca McKee, Meg Russel, Graham Smith, A Considered Public Voice on Brexit: The Report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, 20-32.
35. Allan, Sarah. “The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit: How Did It Work?” The Constitution Unit Blog. The Constitution Unit Blog, October 3, 2017. https://constitution-unit.com/2017/10/03/the-citizens-assembly-on-brexit-how-did-it-work/.
Lead image: Electoral Reform Society/YouTube https://goo.gl/YKR9SQ