Tag Archives: European policy

Is Labour running out of time on Brexit

The Labour Party strategy on Brexit is to wait to see the deal which the government negotiates with the EU, measure it against the “six tests”, and decide whether to support it. This maximises confusion in the Conservative Party and the prospect of a General Election. However, I believe that time is running out, the prospects of an election are very thin, and the Party should be taking a stronger and more public line.

The six tests were all proposed by leading leave campaigners, but it is clear that no possible Brexit agreement can meet them. So the Party will vote against the government’s deal when it comes to Parliament. However, since the Conservatives, with the DUP, have an absolute majority, we will lose and it will go ahead. If there are any rebels, they are likely to cancel each other out. The result will probably be bad, and the Conservatives will have to take the blame, but by then Brexit will be over.

The Labour hope is that the Conservative Party will implode over this, leading to a General Election and a Labour government. However, losing the vote in Parliament does not bring down the government. Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act a General Election is only called by a two thirds majority for a motion in the Commons, or if the government lose a vote of no confidence and no other leader can form a government. Either way, Labour strategy relies on Tory rebels, voting in the knowledge that they are probably putting Jeremy Corbyn in No 10, and I don’t believe that even the most rabid Brexiters will risk that. That is the gamble that Theresa May has made, and I think she will win.

Meanwhile, the clock ticks on. At the end of March next year we will crash out of the EU unless one of three things happens:

  • A deal is agreed. The most likely deal now is going to be a version of the Norway agreement. People will be told that it is “real” Brexit, and many will accept that. However, it will not satisfy hard Brexiters, nor those Remainers who care about the UK’s votes and influence.
  • The Article 50 notice is withdrawn. This is legally possible, but Parliament is unlikely to risk doing this for fear of appearing to defy “the will of the people”, unless a referendum has given authority.
  • The EU agree to an extension of the Article 50 period This is only likely to be acceptable to the EU if they can see a prospect that we might decide to remain.

Virtually all MPs, and all interested parties in the UK and the rest of the EU agree that crashing out would be catastrophic, but the UK government claims to be preparing for it, and some commentators in Europe are beginning to think it is the only, or simplest, solution (since they already have systems in place for working with third countries).
The longer this takes, the less likely a deal (including remaining in the EU) is. There are a number of severe constraints:

  • There are 8 months left (including the dead summer holiday period, the party conference season and Christmas).
  • The EU says that 6 months are needed for ratification of any deal by the 30+ Parliaments and the institutions of the EU.
  • A UK General Election requires weeks of preparation, and is difficult to hold in mid-winter.
  • A Referendum requires at least two months for campaigning.
  • In May there are elections for the European Parliament. The UK’s seats have already been distributed among the 27. Withdrawing Article 50 would severely disrupt the process.

Theresa May is gambling that the threat of a Corbyn government will, in the end, keep her MPs in line, and that if she drags the process out long enough, the only feasible option will be to accept a soft, Norway style deal. By delaying taking a clear stand, Labour risks us falling into that by default. Is that what we believe is best for the country, and the people?

The Labour Party position on Brexit

On 19th May, Keir Starmer, Shadow Secretary of State for Brexit spoke at the Fabian Society Summer Conference. I found this the clearest and most explicable account I have read of the Labour Party’s position, and for the first time I felt I understood the logic behind it – even if I disagree with it.
The key points are that the Labour Party:

– is concentrating on supporting the Lords amendments which give control back to Parliament.
– remains committed to its six tests of the Brexit deal (all of which have been promised by Theresa May), and will vote against the motion to approve the deal if it fails to meet them.
– is not supporting the People’s Vote campaign, because the timescales make it impractical, and polling suggests it might deliver a divisive and inconclusive result.

However, nothing is ruled out, since things can change rapidly.

My full note is at: The Labour position Fabians May 18 web

What next on Brexit?

During the last year, my thinking about our relationship with the European Union has been evolving. I remain convinced that leaving is a major act of political, social, and economic self harm (in that order), which will damage most many of those who voted to leave. This is a (long) account of my views. I have written it against the background of a debate in the Broadland Constituency Labour Party about what the Party should do, but has wider implications.

A political project

For me, membership of the European Union is about values, peace and solidarity with our friends and neighbours. The European Union is probably the most ambitious political project ever attempted. It set out to create a community of shared values, among countries of widely differing sizes and cultures, operating in 24 official languages. Above all it set out to prevent Europe sliding back into the internal warfare which had been the norm for centuries, culminating in the horrors of two twentieth century wars. Since its creation we have seen the establishment of democracy across all the member states, and the longest period of peace in Europe since the Roman Empire. No one under 80 today has any real experience of what it was like to live with war, and we have come to think of peace as normal: it is not: we live in an increasingly dangerous world, where we need friends, not enemies.

One of the strategies of the Brexit campaigners, over the decades they have been fighting the battle, is to claim that the EU is fundamentally an economic union, and can therefore be judged by economic outcomes: a weighing of costs and benefits. But this is a (deliberate) mistake.

The EU was founded on a set of fundamentally social democratic values. It supports democracy, citizens’ rights, equitable treatment of countries and organisations. Through the EU, the member states agree major, overarching goals for public policy. It recognises the role of government, at regional, national and European levels in regulating markets and ensuring fair treatment for all players. It aims to address big and complex issues which extend beyond the boundaries of nation states, like climate, demographic, technological and industrial change. It also aims to make it easy for people throughout the Union to behave as if they were in one country, with no barriers to movement, working and living.

A democratic institution

In any democracy there are competing views, interests and strategies. Good governance depends on maintaining a delicate balance between majority and minority interests, and between member states and the collective Union. Of course, it cannot always satisfy everyone. Complex compromises are essential. Sometimes this involves long implementation timescales, sometimes exceptions are made for individual member states. Reaching agreement with all the parties and countries can be mind numbingly slow and tedious, but is still better than war. Inevitably disputes arise about the interpretation of EU laws and regulations, and The European Court of Justice (to which each member state appoints a judge) exists to adjudicate on such disputes.

Negotiating and agreeing solutions involves complex work by the EU’s civil service, the Commission (which is a relatively small for the size of the task: about the size of a middle sized UK Government Department). Sometimes the Commission funds research to understand the challenges and possible solutions.  Where solutions call for significant legislation or regulation, the decisions are taken jointly by the member states (through the Council), and the elected Parliament. To pass, legislation must be supported by a majority of countries, representing a majority of the population, as well as a majority in the Parliament. Over time, the processes and institutions have evolved to increase transparency, accountability and democratic influence.

The Euro is a special, and difficult issue in the debate on the EU. In retrospect, many believe that it was a mistake to set it up without an accountable democratic system of governance, and the UK was certainly wise to opt out (another example of how the EU can adapt to a particular nation’s issues). The result has been inappropriate lending policies followed by the imposition of punitive regulations on some member states. These problems have been exacerbated by the economic crisis of 2008 (not the fault of the EU), and as a result, public confidence in the Euro, and the EU as a whole has been badly shaken. Those who criticise the lack of democratic accountability in the management of the Euro have a case, but the Euro is not the EU.

Losing our influence

Since we voted to join the European Economic Community in 1975, the UK has always been one of the most influential members. Because it is the third largest country by population, very few significant decisions are taken without UK support, usually in alliance with Germany and France. On issues of particular sensitivity to the UK we have been given special treatment (exclusion from the Schengen Agreement on free movement, and from the Euro, and a large rebate on our notional subscriptions). British diplomats, lawyers and civil servants have a high reputation and significant roles in the workings of the EU. When the Lisbon Treaty established the role of High Representative on Foreign Affairs (to speak for the EU on international issues) the first appointee was a British Labour politician. It is ironic that it was a British lawyer who drafted Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, with the aim of appeasing the right wing of the British Conservative Party.

The suggestion that the UK has no influence over laws and regulations is a myth. Between 1999 and 2016, the EU passed 2592 laws. In the Council of Ministers, the UK voted in favour of 95% of these (2466). The level of disagreement is, of course, higher than this, since drafts are only presented to Parliament and the Council after lengthy diplomatic preliminary work, where some ideas are removed before even being published. UK Ministers have sometimes voted against the majority of elected UK MEPs.

The EU’s evolving mission

Meanwhile, the EU continues to evolve, and will go on doing so after/if the UK leaves.  The Union has agreed a set of ten future policy priorities:

  • Jobs, growth and investment
  • Digital single market
  • Energy union and climate
  • Internal market
  • Deeper and fairer economic and monetary union
  • A balanced and progressive trade policy to harness globalisation
  • Justice and fundamental rights
  • Migration
  • A stronger global actor
  • Democratic change

All of these issues matter to the UK, and to the electorate who voted in the referendum. If we stay within the EU, we would have the opportunity to influence the direction of these policies. Outside, we have no voice, but the EU will move on without us. For the last 43 years we have been “rule makers” in EU policy, and if we leave we will necessarily become “rule takers”, since our economy depends so heavily of the EU, There is no option to ignore the policies of the EU. We are 60 million, the 27 countries are 440 million. It is absurd to think that we will continue to have as much influence over the issues which matter most to us after Brexit as we have now.

In 2019 elections will be held for the European Parliament. If Brexit goes ahead, the UK’s parliamentary seats will be redistributed among the other member states, and we will lose our democratic voice.

The EU and the member states

The EU is a collaborative club of member states, who join for mutual benefit, and agree to contribute to the costs. The success of the common enterprise depends on everyone playing by the rules, but being prepared to tolerate compromises to meet the particular needs of individual states.

What is not negotiable is commitment to the “four freedoms” (freedom of movement of goods, services, money and people) which gives equal rights to all citizens, companies and organisations, and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, which adjudicates in disputes.

If any member state refuses to abide by these rules, it acquires an unfair advantage over the other members, which is precisely what the Union was created to avoid. It is therefore essential to the survival of the entire enterprise that no country breaks these rules. The EU has no interest in “punishing” the UK if it leaves, but it cannot reasonably be expected to agree to the UK having an unfair advantage over its members. If everyone leaves the club and expects to keep the benefits, there is no longer a club!

What did people vote for?

The Brexit referendum offered a simple binary choice. Campaigners on both side offered visions of the consequences of leaving or remaining, but most of this was inevitably speculation, and much was exaggerated. In a real sense, no one could know what they were voting for.

Opinion polls since have tried to investigate what people thought they were voting for, and the picture is not at all clear. Some thought it was primarily about immigration, while others prioritised “control” (though whose control over what was much less clear). One significant poll shortly after the referendum illustrates the problem. When asked whether people would prioritise remaining in the Single Market over controlling immigration, the balance was 2:1 in favour of remaining in the Single Market: a policy which the Government has repeatedly rejected.

What outcomes are possible?

In principle there can only be four outcomes from the Brexit negotiations:

“No deal”

meets the requirement to honour the referendum result, but it is inconceivable, and no one seriously believes that it will happen. If all existing agreements and treaties lapsed on 29th March 2019, there would be no legal authority to adjudicate in disputes between the UK and the rest of the EU, and businesses would be unlikely to risk operating across the border. Air traffic would stop, existing EU contracts would be in limbo, imports of medical isotopes for cancer treatment would stop, and financial services based in the UK would no longer be able to do business in the rest of the EU. The Irish border would be closed, with a threat to political stability. The legal status and rights of UK citizens living in the EU, and EU citizens living in the UK would be unclear. World Trade Organisation tariffs would be introduced immediately on UK exports to the EU (and probably EU imports to the UK), causing major delays at ports, given the need for large numbers of additional customs checks. Import delays would provoke serious food shortages. If businesses believed that this was at all likely, the emergency plans required to protect their commercial interests might cause significant unemployment and social disruption.

Soft Brexit

can also meet the requirement to “leave”, though Brexit campaigners differ in what compromises they would accept. There are several variants of “soft Brexit” (including Norway, Canada, Switzerland), but all involve “cherry picking” which bits of EU rules and institutions we remain in, and what we pay for the privilege. All depend on the willingness of the other member states to agree, and all require us to renounce our seats on the Council, Parliament, Commission and Court of Justice, and to give up our votes on laws, regulations and the future direction of the Union. To continue to cooperate on issues like medicines, crime and air traffic we would need to create a large number of new institutions to parallel those which we are members of as members of the EU. We would need to create a new body to adjudicate in disputes, to replace the ECJ. Any realistic version of “soft Brexit” would thus be very expensive to implement and while it would satisfy the requirement to “leave”, it would not actually increase control over anything significant.

Stop Brexit

is still an option, but would clearly not honour the expectations of those who voted for Brexit. Up until 29th March 2019, the UK can withdraw its notice to leave, and return to its previous status. The UK would retain unrestricted access to the EU market, and benefit from the EU’s trade agreements with 70 odd other countries either agreed or in active negotiation. In return it must continue to contribute to the budget and subscribe to the four freedoms. Although Parliament has the constitutional right to decide to stop the Brexit process, it is unlikely to do so for fear of punishment by the electorate for abandoning the “will of the people”. It therefore requires either a substantial change in public opinion (which is not yet evident) or a new mandate (through a general election or a new referendum on the terms on offer).

Leave and return.

The UK might decide to leave the EU on one of the bases listed above, and then, after some years, change its mind. Opinion polling suggests that public opinion is quite likely to support this, since opposition to membership is far greater among older people. However, under EU law, the UK would have to apply like any new applicant state, and abide by the rules. This would probably require us to join Schengen and the Euro, and lose the current budget rebate. This would be a very expensive option.

The Labour Party’s policy

Finally, a comment on the parochial interests of the UK Labour Party. The last two years have shown the extraordinary irresponsibility of the British Conservative Party, prepared to put at risk the UK’s economy, social welfare and standing in the world (all issues they claim to care about), to deal with an internal party squabble. Once again, they have demonstrated that retaining control of government in the party interest outbids any national interest. Against this, the Labour Party needs to be a strong voice for what is best for the UK as a whole. This should be a principled position, not based on our chances of tipping out a weak and divided government, desirable as that is.

Respected legal opinion is that nothing in the 2017 Labour Manifesto is prohibited by EU laws. Where there is any doubt, our chances of changing things are greater as members than as outsiders. It is also clear that there are many things that some on the political right would like that are prevented by membership. Freedom from EU laws and regulations would enable a Conservative UK government to repeal legislation protecting workers’, citizens’, and consumers’ rights. It would also protect us from the EU’s plans to regulate tax havens. It is not a coincidence that the leave campaign was led and funded by some of the richest people in the country, and supported by print media owned by tax exiles.

Conclusion

The referendum was limited, but legitimate. Although only 37% of the electorate voted leave, people were told that that a simple majority of those voting would be sufficient result, and 52% of them chose leave. They were told conflicting things about whether the result would be binding on the government, and about what leaving might mean. Only when the current negotiations are complete will anyone know what the real choice is.
Parliament has the constitutional right to stop Brexit when it sees the result of the negotiation, but to do so would be politically dangerous, not only for parties and MPs but for social cohesion and the national interest. I therefore believe that Parliament requires a new mandate on the terms actually available. This could be achieved by:

  • a general election where the parties took distinct clear positions, for and against Brexit on the terms negotiated
  • a general election where one party at least campaigned for a referendum on the terms negotiated
  • a referendum on the terms negotiated, without a general election

Each of these has risks and advantages, but to allow this government, with no Parliamentary majority, to put the future of our security, economy and rights at risk to resolve internal party disputes would be the height of irresponsibility.

The clock is ticking. The terms must be clear by October to allow them to be ratified by the other member states. Any of these three options is likely to require some extension of the Article 50 period beyond March 2019, and the other member states might be sympathetic to agreeing this, since most of them would prefer us to remain members, However, this causes problems for the European Parliament elections due in May 2019. It is vital, in the national interest, that the Labour Party makes its position as clear as possible, as quickly as possible.

My team: right or wrong

Why are people not changing their minds as the difficulties of Brexit become increasingly clear?

Since the referendum, exit negotiations have made almost no progress, and the Government is increasingly in disarray, with Ministers and MPs quarrelling about what they want, and what it might mean. Public dissatisfaction with progress has risen substantially, with a clear majority believing that the negotiations are being badly handled.

Yet public opinion remains stubbornly unchanged on the central issue. Those who voted to leave remain leavers, and many of those who voted remain accept the “will of the people” and believe that Brexit should happen, even if they believe it will be an economic and/or a social disaster.

Yet the “will of the people” is a lie, amplified by the passionate Brexiters and through the right wing press. Three quarters of the population (including those too young to vote, who will be most affected) did not vote for Brexit. Two thirds of the electorate did not vote for Brexit (either by voting against or not voting at all). Those who did vote divided almost equally between leavers and remainers, with a very small margin in favour of leave. A minority of MPs voted for Brexit, and two thirds of Labour supporters and voters did so.

It is also clear that those who did vote for Brexit did so for a wide range of, often incompatible, reasons, and the Government has already conceded that many of these will not be achieved. Immigration will not fall, because the economy and public services depend heavily on immigrant labour. There will not be more money for public services, since all commentators agree that the short term effect will be an economic contraction, as we see with UK growth falling behind the rest of the EU. “Control” by the people or by Parliament will not be increased, as we lose our MEPs and our seat on the Council of the EU, which will continue to set the rules for much of our trade, and the Government centralises power in the hands of Ministers. We will not see an expansion of trade  with the rest of the world, as we struggle to renegotiate (from a position of weakness) the many trade deals which we are party to as EU members.

What is the explanation for this effective support for Brexit, despite the fact that it  is increasingly difficult to do?

Firstly, most people do not understand much about the EU, and do not care much about it. Until two years ago, when opinion polls asked about what issues concern people, Europe always figured low down the list, far below the NHS, housing, schools, and employment. During the referendum campaign the EU rose up the list, but it has now returned to its previous low place. So until the referendum people took little interest. The achievement of the leave campaigners was to harness these other concerns to the idea of the EU, and persuade people that leaving the EU would in some way solve these problems, despite the fact that the EU has little or no impact on any of them.

Because most people know little, and care little, about the EU per se, when forced to take a simple yes/no position their decision was more emotional than rational.  Because it was a binary choice, people came to see it as like a football match in which one side wins and the other loses. And like football supporters, they feel they have chosen their team, and they support it, even when it is badly managed, and constantly defeated. True supporters do not abandon their team just because it loses matches.

This is why evidence of the difficulties and the losses we might face from Brexit carry no weight. Opponents at home, or in the rest of Europe, are seen as an enemy to be defeated (despite the Government’s rhetoric about “friends and partners”). Evidence of failure is seen as a new challenge to be fought against, not an argument for compromise. What the leavers want, with a passion, is to leave, whatever that might mean, and they are quite willing to accept changes in policy in the interests of winning.  It seems that many, perhaps most, leavers will accept continued migration, devaluation and economic decline, perhaps even unemployment, in order to win. Furthermore, they have been repeatedly told, and they believe, that they represent the will of the people: all right thinking people are on their side, and the rest are traitors.

This presents all political parties with a challenge. Because the referendum was set up on a simple majority of those voting, and a marginal majority has come to be seen as the will of the people, they feel (wrongly in my view) that it would be undemocratic to resist. So ardent, and no so ardent, remainers support leaving as “democratic”. For the large majority of professional politicians (who were remainers), the task has become to find a solution which demonstrates that we have “left” while doing the least social, economic, and diplomatic damage.

For the Conservatives this involves appeasing the extreme Brexiters, who for a range of ideological and personal reasons seriously want to leave. Although they remain a minority of Conservative MPs, and probably Conservative members, they will be constantly alert to betrayal, and they do understand the detail on issues they care about. With the right wing media, they will cry foul at the first opportunity, particularly if this fits with personal career advancement.

For the Labour Party the problem is different. Because the public opinion contest is not a rational one, anything which looks like resisting the will of the people will be seen (however spuriously) as betrayal of democracy.  Despite the fact that a clear majority of members, supporters and MPs were remainers, and probably a majority remain so, the dangers of appearing to reject a democratic vote are seen as too great. Hence the current position, to repeat endlessly that we are leaving, while trying to ensure that we travel the shortest possible distance from membership. The risk is that the endless repetition of accepting the will of the people reinforces the belief that leaving is the will of the people, when this is plainly untrue. It is appeasing bullies.

The hope for Labour remainers is that somehow public opinion will shift to stopping Brexit, but the evidence is slim, for the reasons I have outlined. People have taken sides, and will die rather than admit that they were wrong.

So what would a Labour minimal Brexit look like? We would remain, for at least a “transition” period and perhaps indefinitely, in the single market and the customs union, because of the huge trade advantages, and because this is the only way of resolving the Irish border problem. This would require us to retain free movement of people and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, membership of most or all of the host of collaborative and regulatory institutions like the Medicines Agency, and continue to contribute to the budget. The Government has already conceded that the volume of migration will not change, we will simply have “control”. Historically, the UK has chosen not to use the controls on movement which are available to it. As Belgium and Luxembourg demonstrate, “free movement” does not mean uncontrolled free movement, or unlimited access to housing or welfare benefits. The ECJ is a totemic issue for the far right, but most people care little about it. As long as we trade with the EU at all we will need a system to adjudicate on disputes, and it would be wasteful to create a parallel court to shadow the ECJ on this. On the budget, most people have no conception of the numbers: that our current contribution is tiny as a proportion of Government spending. Most will accept with a shrug a “divorce settlement” of £60bn rather that £20bn, since these are numbers beyond individual comprehension, and the scope for fudging over time is considerable.

The great and sad irony, is that the one thing we must do to demonstrate that we have left, is resign our formal democratic influence on the EU, its policies and rules. It is inconceivable that people will accept a Brexit which retains our seats on the Parliament and the Council. So we give up our position as one of the “big three” nations, without whose consent little has happened in the EU until now, and become “rule takers” like Norway, obliged to implement rules which we have no say in formulating. When this becomes clear, it might be the tipping point when people recognise this nonsense for what it is. It might be too late.

Stephen McNair’s Website

About this website

This is my personal website. I have created it as a place to put some of the fruits of 47 years of work as a teacher, writer, manager and policy adviser in adult, higher and vocational education, careers and educational guidance, and in the last decade, on ageing and demographic change.

I have been prompted to create the site by people who have asked for copies of documents and reports which I have written in the past but which are no longer available online. It starts therefore as a repository of documents, published and unpublished, with a certain amount of commentary, but it also includes a blog, to provide an outlet (if only for me) for my thoughts on current issues. This is the first post of that blog.

I have worked for and with very many organisations and institutions.  Four have involved the most time and effort:

  • the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education (NIACE),
  • the Unit for the Development of Adult Continuing Education (UDACE),
  • the National Association for Educational Guidance for Adults (NAEGA),
  • the National Institute for Careers Education and Counselling (NICEC).

Although much of the work has been within the UK, I have been involved in European and international activity since the early 1990s. Most recently I have been increasingly active in politics.

I hope you find something interesting and that it doesn’t look too much like an ego trip. Feel free to comment on the site, or anything in it, and suggestions for additions or improvements would be very welcome