In two years’ time, it is likely Britain will have left the European Union, but what kind of new relationship will we have with the rest of the EU? And how should the government go about achieving the best deal? Increasingly, the government is risking the hardest of exits, crashing out on WTO terms with no deal – a real danger as a result of ministerial intransigence and the antagonising of our EU partners.
If the negotiations don’t start well, it will be much harder for them to finish well.
Take the issue of citizens’ rights, Labour’s call to guarantee the rights of three million EU citizens currently resident in the UK: an uncontentious idea, with wide support, yet something the government has refused to do. To have done so would not only have been the right thing to do, but would almost certainly have been reciprocated by other EU countries, giving peace of mind to British citizens living in the EU as well. So now millions living in our country, plus more than a million Brits abroad, are facing uncertainty, finding themselves caught up in the negotiations.
The votes on this issue in parliament did not go unnoticed in Europe’s corridors of power. The EU-27 begin the negotiations united in their concerns about how Theresa May’s government will approach the talks. And so we start off on the wrong foot, and should be in no doubt that the government’s intransigence on this will have hardened resolve on the other side of the table.
Or look at what’s happening in Scotland, where incompetent and insensitive handling of Brexit by the Tories has allowed Nicola Sturgeon to make a play for another independence referendum. Debate in the last few weeks has reinforced the impression among our EU partners that when the prime minister speaks to them about Brexit, she does not do so on behalf of everyone in the United Kingdom. Ministers have no mandate for their preference of an ever harder Brexit, and in pursuing it they are not only threatening the future of the UK, but are even weakening their own hand in the negotiations.
Meanwhile, one of the more striking aspects of Europe’s response to the Brexit vote has been the capacity of EU leaders to maintain a united line in public and in private. It is clear that they have no desire to see their countries follow Britain through the exit door.
It also looks like the anti-EU tide may be turning amongst Europe’s electorates too. In the Dutch general elections the far-right Geert Wilders performed well below expectations. The French elections look difficult for mainstream politicians, but the staunchly pro-EU Emmanuel Macron leads the Front National’s Marine Le Pen 63 per cent to 37 per cent, in polling for the presidential run-off. In Germany the two candidates most likely to emerge as chancellor are the strongly pro-European Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament, whose arrival on the domestic political scene has revived hopes for Labour’s sister party the SPD.
They might not agree on everything, but with regard to the Brexit negotiations, all this means the EU-27 looks set to continue to speak with a single, united and increasingly confident voice, and, as European Council President Donald Tusk recently warned, unwilling to take kindly to threats. Attempts thus far by ministers to pick countries off and try and sow division have fallen flat and succeeded only in souring relations that we’ll need during the talks.
On top of which the EU will not want to get exclusively bogged down with the UK negotiations. Getting the least damaging Brexit deal is important to them, but won’t be the only show in town – terrorism, migration, and the eurozone and banking crises will all be vying with Brexit for the attention of EU leaders.
In addition, discussions have begun on the next steps for the EU. There is talk of building a more rights-oriented, fairer, less corporate “social Europe”. That was one of the main topics under discussion by EU leaders at the weekend’s Rome summit to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner of the European Union. It would be one of the infinite ironies of Brexit if we leave just as EU-27 citizens begin to benefit from stronger social rights, action that could deal with some of the concerns at the root of the Brexit referendum.
As Keir Starmer, our shadow Brexit secretary, made clear yesterday, Labour will only support a deal that actually works for Britain and benefits working people. The deal the government negotiates must protect jobs and the economy, and we must maintain a strong collaborative relationship with the EU, with continued cooperation in fields such as security, science, research, culture and technology.
We will continue to hold ministers and leave campaigners to account as they seek to dampen down expectations and claim the new lows are what they’ve wanted all along. As the negotiations start, we’ve already gone from promises of £350 million extra per week for the NHS and membership of the single market to no extra money and WTO tariffs in just nine months – how much more will we lose in the next 24? The definition of a “hard” Brexit is being shifted by the Tory right to get tougher over time, and now means something completely different from the morning of June 24th, and utterly unrecognisable from the Vote Leave campaign pledges all the way up to June 23rd.
Mixed messages from ministers; incompetence at the highest level; fears for the future of the UK; Brextremists like Farage, Cash and Redwood appearing to set the agenda; ministers claiming no deal is better than a ‘bad’ deal, when they’ve not even examined in detail the consequences of such a scenario.
The government is taking Britain into these negotiations divided, with nothing to demonstrate they have the competence necessary to succeed. Meanwhile our European partners, defying many people’s expectations, are showing a united front. Britain deserves better than this government.
Blog for Labourlist, 29 March 2017
Responding to the triggering of Article 50 today, Glenis Willmott MEP, Labour’s Leader in the European Parliament, said:
“It is time for Theresa May to be honest with the British public and to challenge the Right of her party who have been leading Britain down a perilous path. We’ve seen a change of tone from the prime minister today, but while the rhetoric may have been toned down, we don’t know anything more about her actual plans for Britain’s future.
“The prime minister has set herself a mammoth task to achieve the objectives laid out in today’s letter – a task made harder by the actions and rhetoric of her and her ministers to date.
“If we are to avoid a no-deal or poor-deal disaster, the PM needs to convince EU leaders that she is serious about securing a ‘deep and special partnership’, and they currently need a lot of convincing.”
Glenis Willmott MEP added:
“Theresa May needs to stop pandering to the Tory Right, who have been consistently lowering the bar of what British people can expect from the negotiations – we’ve gone from promises of £350 million extra per week for the NHS and membership of the Single Market to no extra money and potentially punitive WTO tariffs in just nine months.
“And that is why, over the next two years, Labour MEPs will work to hold this government and its ministers to account for the promises made during the referendum and since. Many people who voted for Brexit did not vote for higher prices, fewer jobs and less money for our public services, all of which risk happening if we fall out of the EU with no deal.”
Labour MEPs have warned that Theresa May must urgently build bridges with her fellow EU leaders, and listen less to the hardline ‘no deal’ Brexiters, after European Council President Donald Tusk told the European Parliament today that Europe will not be “intimidated” by threats, and that failure to reach a deal would hurt Britain more than the EU.
Glenis Willmott MEP, Labour MEP for the East Midlands, said:
“The signs are there, from Chancellor Merkel, President Hollande, and now Donald Tusk: threats and intimidation from the UK government are building hostility amongst our European partners and are making it harder to build the alliances we need to get a good deal.
“The prime minister lacks allies and ideas, seemingly alone and isolated in the EU, apparently more comfortable in the presence of Donald Trump than Donald Tusk. If this attitude persists, we risk crashing out of the European Union with either a dire deal or no deal at all.
“Theresa May needs to stop being led down the path favoured by Nigel Farage and the ‘no deal’ masochists on her front and back benches, and start building her relationships with her fellow EU leaders and negotiating partners. If she doesn’t, we will end up with a truly disastrous WTO Brexit, with high tariffs, job losses and economic chaos.”
Ahead of a debate today in the European Parliament on the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, Labour MEPs have urged the British government to give them peace of mind by upholding their rights to remain in the UK after Brexit. The European Parliament debate takes place at the same time as the House of Lords debates amendments on citizens’ rights in the Brexit bill.
Glenis Willmott MEP, Labour’s Leader in the European Parliament, said:
“It is really quite shocking that the government has failed to offer guarantees to the three million EU citizens currently resident in the UK, and is using them and the 1.2 million British citizens living in the rest of the European Union as pawns in the Brexit negotiations.
“EU citizens who have been in the UK for years are fearful of what the future may hold for them in the country they have made their home – people who have worked and studied here, contributed to society, contributed to the economy, and started families.
“Were Theresa May to guarantee the rights of EU citizens in Britain, it would not only be the right thing to do, but would almost certainly be reciprocated by other EU countries, giving peace of mind to the many British citizens facing similar circumstances in the rest of the EU.
“The prime minister recently said EU citizens living in the UK make a “vital contribution to our society and economy”, and that without their contribution Britain would be “poorer” and public services “weaker”. She needs to act on these words without delay.”
“In the coming months the LIBE, petitions and employment committees will hold a joint hearing to investigate the cases that have been brought to the European Parliament. It is important that we continue to draw attention to the increasing number of cases from concerned EU citizens and their rights ahead of the Brexit negotiations.
“We will strengthen our calls for guarantees to protect the rights of the close to three million EU citizens in the UK and the one and a half million UK citizens living in other EU countries. We, as MEPs, will equally represent their interests and continue to lead calls to ensure that these people are not penalised for a decision that will affect them, but which many of them had no part in making.”