Richard Corbett MEP, 10 November 2018
Speech given by Richard Corbett MEP, Labour’s leader in the European Parliament, to the Yorkshire & Humber Labour Party Regional Policy Forum on 10 November in Sheffield
I see aspects both ends of the Brexit process: Brussels, where I know many of the EU negotiators, and London where I attend Shadow Cabinet, the NEC and speak to many MPs and officials.
It’s fascinating – but disheartening.
At the Brussels end, Brexit is not only issue in town. For the 27 other Member States, there are other big issues and there is day-to-day businesses, and Brexit is not the all encompassing issue it is for the British government.
Certainly, there is sadness at the prospect of Britain leaving.
There is sympathy for the British people.
But there is exasperation at the British government, the antics of some of its ministers, and its inability to negotiate seriously. There is dismay at the chaos and confusion that reigns.
There have been 2 years of negotiation, but not so much negotiation between Britain and the EU, as internal negotiations between the different factions of the Conservative party. It took them 2 years to reach the Chequers proposal, which then fell apart within days as key ministers resigned.
Why this inability to decide what it wants from Brexit? I think there are three reasons:
First, sheer incompetence, as most recently illustrated by Dominic Raab’s belated discovery that Dover is actually quite important for Britain’s trade. (It reminds me of the joke about how many Brexit Ministers does it take to change a lightbulb? One to promise a brighter future and all the rest of them to screw it up!)
Second, the fact that any government faces a dilemma: if you go ahead with Brexit, you have an unpalatable choice. Either you distance yourself from the EU, leaving the customs union and the single market, and you take a big economic hit. Or you attenuate that by staying in the customs union and aligned to the single market, but then you have play by the same rules as everyone else – rules over which you no longer have a say.
Third, the Tories’ ideological splits. The civil war on Europe within the Tory party has not abated. The Neoliberal right hates the EU because its single market has rules – rules to protect consumers, workers and the environment. Rules that could be better- that’s what Linda and I work on every week – but they are significant enough for the neoliberal right to go apoplectic. That is the very reason they want to leave the EU – to be able to tear up these rules and have a free-for-all market, where corporates can do what they want. And that is why they even want a no-deal Brexit, despite its huge consequences, because they think any deal might see Britain continuing to follow European standards.
Now we are told that a deal is 95% there.
That’s actually is 95% of one half of the deal, the divorce agreement. For the other, more important, half, the Framework for the Future Relationship, no percentage is mentioned.
And even for the 95% claim: it’s a bit like saying a new-build house is 95% ready, the only bit missing is the roof!
The crucial missing bit here derives from the issue of how to avoid the border in Northern
Ireland becoming a hard border.
Both sides agreed from the start that there should be no systematic controls and no new
infrastructure on that border, which should remain, as now, virtually invisible.
But the government announced that it intends the UK to leave not only the EU as such, but the Customs Union as well, thereby turning our borders into customs borders. How do you have a customs border without customs checks?
Do you avoid the problem for the Northern Ireland border by shifting controls to the Irish Sea ports, leaving Northern Ireland inside the Customs Union? “No way”, say the DUP, on whom Theresa May’s minority government depends.
Do we use new technologies to track goods electronically, as the government suggested? “No way” said the EU – no such technology exists and, if it did, how do you check for fraud?
So, almost coming a full circle, the government has now suggested that the whole of the UK remain inside the Customs Union, but temporarily while we think of something else. “What the XXXX?” was the near universal reaction.
More specifically, it poses the question as to how “temporarily” comes to an end. If it can be ended unilaterally by the UK, with no agreement on what replaces it, especially for the Irish border, then it’s not acceptable to Ireland or the EU. A “Backstop” with an expiry date is not a backstop. An insurance policy that works Monday and Tuesday but can be cancelled on Wednesday is not an insurance policy.
But, conversely, a Temporary Customs Union that can only end when there is mutual agreement on what replaces it, is not acceptable to the right wing of the Tory party, who portray that as meaning Britain cannot leave it without EU agreement, a situation which they describe as being a “prisoner” of the EU.
And all this is not just a matter of the Customs Union, but also of the Single Market rules. If the UK now diverges from the rules we have elaborated together on product standards, consumer rights, hygiene and sanitary standards (especially for food and agricultural products), labelling, and so on, then we turn our borders into regulatory borders – also with border checks.
This is not just important for the Irish border issue. The Customs Union and the Single Market are important for the economy of the whole of the UK. They are the means that ensure that we have frictionless trade with our European neighbours. Any products made legally in the UK can be sold anywhere in EU as they are legal everywhere without needing further controls, checks, testing, or fees.
But the government is firm that it wants to leave both the single market and the customs union, and that any stay in them would be temporary.
In other words, we’re heading for a costly, damaging, job-destroying, rights-threatening, “hard” Brexit.
Same for security: Theresa May, having initially said that we wouldn’t stay in “bits of the EU” has belatedly woken up to the fact that the European Arrest Warrant is an important tool when it comes to fugitives from justice, be they criminals, terrorists or child abductors. They now want the UK to stay in it. The EU has no strong objection but points out that the Arrest Warrant is not a CIA-style rendition scheme – it comes with legal safeguards such as the fact that all participating countries are signed up to the EU Charter of Rights and there is a right to appeal to the ECJ on points of law. But the government won’t accept that.
Same for Europol and data sharing on criminal records and evidence.
Similarly on the EU technical agencies. Take the air safety agency. All aircraft and airlines are tested and certified as safe under the auspices of that agency, without which they cannot be given permission to fly anywhere in Europe. We do this jointly(it saves money). Now, if we leave that system, we have to set up our own agency, at great expense, recruit the necessary expertise, and have it recognised by countries across the world. The government has now realised that this is a bit pointless. So we’re saying to the EU: “sorry we’re walking out, but would you mind very much if we stay in the Air Safety Agency?”
And the Medicines Agency?
And the Chemicals Agency?
And so on.
No wonder an EU negotiator said to me that it sometimes seems as though they’re dealing with a country applying to join the EU, rather than one wanting to leave!
But here again, the same difficulty arises: if there are legal disputes about these common agencies, they are settled by the common court, the European Court of Justice. The government’s red lines rule that out.
So, for all these future relationship issues, expect fudge in any deal, disguising the fact that these issues remain unsettled and will only be dealt with later: a “Blindfold Brexit” on the key points.
Now, colleagues, if Theresa May gets a deal, she will try to sell it as “This deal v no-deal”.
She has recently been drawing attention to the problems of a no-deal cliff-edge Brexit. It means that we’d suddenly drop out of all existing European rules and arrangements without replacing or prolonging them. That has potentially catastrophic effects on things as varied as aircraft landing rights, residency rights for citizens, falling back on WTO rules for trade with border taxes, continuity of cross border contracts, and much else. It’s something no-one sensible wants.
So portraying it as a choice between her deal or no-deal is an attempt to blackmail the House of Commons.
But at Labour Conference we were clear. We adopted a resolution saying that Labour must oppose any Brexit deal which does not meet our tests – which this deal won’t – and that, if it is defeated in the Commons, we will call for a general election. If we don’t get that, we are open to having a new referendum. Indeed, our resolution also challenged the government to put its deal directly to a referendum, saying:
“If the government is confident in negotiating a deal that working people, our economy and communities will benefit from, they should not be afraid to put that deal to the public”
In the Commons, if Labour votes for a referendum, we would have the support of the other opposition parties (SNP, LibDems, Green, WelshNats) and some Conservative MPs (about a dozen have so far pledged to vote for one). It’s no longer an unlikely scenario.
A new referendum might need a short extension of the Art 50 deadline beyond 29 March to have time to organise it. If so, there is no doubt in my mind, having spoken to key players on the EU side, that they would agree to an extension if it were needed for the UK to complete its democratic procedures.
It would be logical for any public vote to be a choice between accepting the deal or remaining in the EU. In other words, asking people whether, now that they can see black on white what Brexit actually entails, they wish to proceed with it or not. Just like, when you decide to buy a house, you can change your mind when the survey reveals shaky foundations, cracked walls and a leaky roof.
And there is every chance that the public will not wish to proceed.
Public opinion has not done what was expected, namely to rally behind the result. On the contrary, it has moved in the opposite direction.
Not just because of two more years of younger voters joining the electoral register, but because of previous Leave voters changing their mind.
Leave voters are entitled to say that Brexit bears no resemblance to what was promised, is not what they were told, and not what they voted for. Many of them are indeed doing so. The latest extensive poll showed 54-46 Remain, with the biggest swings in Labour voting areas (while, conversely, Tory voters have tended to rally behind their government).
Now, I don’t often agree with David Davis. But there is one thing he said that is quite right: “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy”
In 2016, Labour accepted the result of the referendum, not because it though it was good for the country, – the party had, after all, campaigned to remain – but because, as a democratic party, it respected the will of the people. With every indication that the public is changing its mind, it would be an act of folly to proceed with Brexit without checking whether it still is the will of the people.