May’s divided, Brextremist government means we start negotiations on the back foot

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

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EU summit: Theresa May as isolated and clueless as ever

Brexit: Flag of EU with Big Ben in the hole

What we’ve learnt from the latest EU Leaders’ summit…

1. May’s isolation continues: It’s a depressing sight, and the sign of things to come for Brexit Britain – caught on camera, the prime minister of the United Kingdom arrives at an international summit and is ignored by her colleagues, shuffling around looking for someone, anyone, to talk to. And to compound it, she’s excluded from the end-of-summit Brexit discussions. It’s like going to a party, sitting alone, then being asked to stand outside while everyone else talks about you and decides your future. A leader without influence, isolated, invisible; far from taking back control, the UK government has lost it.

2. May is as clueless as her ministers: Just like her Brexit secretary David Davis, Theresa May still has no real plan on how to deliver Brexit; Davis, appearing before the DExEU select committee this week, reprised his Question and Unanswer act, speaking while revealing next to nothing. Davis once again kicked the plan down the road, saying it will not be published until February. At the earliest. It’s not convincing parliamentarians and it’s clear from the reactions of other leaders at the summit, keen to know a bit more a bit sooner, that the government doesn’t have a plan.

3. The European Parliament bares its teeth: The President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, reiterated to EU leaders the need for MEPs to be more involved in the Brexit process. It follows the parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt’s threat to open up separate negotiations. A majority of MEPs must vote for any exit deal, and the best chance for this to happen is if they feel they’ve been involved in the negotiations. If the European Parliament doesn’t back it, we’d be left with the worst possible result – the hardest of hard Brexits, in which the UK leaves without any kind of deal in place.

4. Post-Brexit trade deals will not just magically appear: The pre-summit revelations from internal government briefings that European politicians have warned a UK-EU trade deal could take “up to ten years” adds to the sense that ministers don’t really know what is going on. It is now six months since the Brexit vote, Britain still has no plan and EU leaders have only just agreed how they’ll talk to each other in negotiations. Whether it’s with the rest of the European Union, America, India, Australia, wherever, the idea peddled by leave campaigners that Britain could waltz out of the EU and strike better and faster is being further exposed as the undeliverable £350m-esque post-truth promise it always was.

5. The world has bigger priorities than Brexit: For the rest of the world, international politics isn’t just about Brexit – Syria and the genocide in Aleppo was the number one priority at the summit, and rightly so. The refugee crisis and the EU’s ongoing response to it was also high on the agenda. And in such unstable times, and with no direction from Theresa May, the patience of our negotiating partners is wearing thin – and that’s bad news if we want to avoid economic turmoil when the two-year negotiations come to an end.

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PM’s stone-faced silence leaves Farage and Boris as Britain’s insulting faces abroad, writes Labour’s top MEP

EU & Uk flags merged croppedToday, as Theresa May meets the leaders of the US, Germany, France and Italy at a mini-summit in Berlin, Brexit will for once take second billing, after Donald Trump. Nevertheless, just like the British people, these world leaders will almost certainly be looking for something, anything, to indicate that the prime minister has a plan for Britain’s future.‎

For most of the world, Britain’s face abroad seems to be Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, who are more than happy to give a “running commentary” while the prime minister sticks to her tired tautology, saying nothing in public, whether at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet or the despatch box, leaving parliament and the country in the dark.

The prime minister’s stone-faced silence and weak leadership has led Farage,basking in the tangerine glow of the President-elect, to offer himself as a nightmare chimera of her man in Washington and Trump’s man in Brussels, while Boris has been trundling around Europe revealing what he thinks Brexit means, insulting Italians and talking Turkey.

This week, the foreign secretary told a Czech newspaper the UK would “probably” leave the EU customs union, which could lead to a 4.5 per cent fall in GDP by 2030 and the clogging up of trade through Britain’s ports – £120bn of goods a year are transported on ferries through Dover alone. The re-imposition of significant customs checks will cause major traffic problems near ports, resulting in a reduction in trade volumes.

He also used the interview to say it was a “myth”, “nonsense” and “bollocks” that free movement was a founding principle of the European Union – words that our European partners, with whom we must agree a Brexit deal, might themselves use to describe the statements of Johnson. Angela Merkel‎, Francois Hollande, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt are all clear that they intend to uphold the four freedoms of the EU: the free movement of goods, services, capital and, crucially, people.

He then reprised his insult-o-rama act, adding Italy to the list of countries he’s offended, getting into a tiff with the Italian foreign minister over the post-Brexit export prospects of Prosecco, Borisplaining to him that Italy and the other 26 EU countries need tariff-free access to us more than we need to them. The very definition of post-truth.

And at the start of the week, he said Turkey should, after all, be allowed to join the EU – the complete opposite of what Leave supporters said during the referendum campaign. At the Tory Party conference last month, Theresa May wondered out loud: “Can Boris Johnson stay on-message for a full four days?” He couldn’t even last a day.

We are now just four months from the prime minister’s own deadline of March 31 for triggering Article 50, yet as the days shorten and the clock ticks down, we are still relying on the foreign secretary’s cavalier approach to diplomacy to get an insight into government thinking. We have still not heard anything from Theresa May herself.

The question arising from today’s summit, then, is will she tell her fellow leaders exactly what is going on? If so then they’ll be getting far more information than the UK Parliament or the British people. Or will they get the same meaningless statements we’ve heard so far – in which case it is likely that she has no plan at all. Whichever is true, it’s time for the prime minister to come clean with the British people.

Blog for Labourlist, 18 November 2016

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EU membership is vital for our security

iStock_000006127667XSmallThis week, Labour MEPs voted to strengthen Europol, the EU wide law enforcement agency. The new rules will enhance the investigatory powers of Europol, making it easier to set up specialised units to react to emerging threats, while also increasing transparency and data protection standards.

Europol has the structures in place to fight crime and terrorism, and a great track record. At the beginning of this month, Europol supported Portuguese Police in breaking up a Russian organised crime group, and last month, the FBI and Europol signed a co-operation agreement that will see the agencies working together to identify foreign terrorist fighters.

Not only does Europol have an impressive record, it also has British talent at the top with Director Rob Wainwright, a former Police and Intelligence Officer from the UK.

Wainwright has made clear the how important EU co-operation is in fighting crime and terrorism, stating that a Brexit would make it harder to keep the UK safe.

Meanwhile, the Leave campaign think they know better. Boris Johnson, hardly a renowned expert on crime and terrorism, reckons that we’d be better going it alone.

This is the same Boris who has been driving around the UK in a German bus on his ‘Leave EU’ tour this week – it took a matter of hours for someone to work out that the same bus would cost thousands more with the weak pound and more expensive fuel that would follow a Brexit vote…

I know who I’ll be listening to!

We’ve seen certain members of the Leave campaign become increasingly hostile to anyone who questions them, but this referendum could be the most important vote in our lifetimes, and people deserve to hear the facts.

So far, the Director of Europol, 13 former US secretaries of state and defence, five former NATO Secretaries-General and British military leaders – including three former Chiefs of the Defence Staff – have warned that to leave the EU would be to gamble with our security

When qualified and experienced intelligence and military experts are talking about how important the EU is for our security, we should be paying attention.

Aside from co-operation through Europol, thousands of criminals, including terrorists, have been arrested under another EU initiative – the European Arrest Warrant. The arrest warrant has made it quicker and easier to bring criminals to justice, an important tool in our fight against crime in Europe.

Our EU membership is fundamentally linked to our security, and this is just one of the reasons Labour will be campaigning to Remain in the EU on the 23rd June.

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Data protection: protecting fundamental rights and keeping people safe

Data profile folder labeled "confidential" in filing cabinettection is all about finding the balance. We need to protect our fundamental rights, but also ensure the safety of people across the EU.

This week MEPs voted through the EU data protection package and we now have the toughest data protection measures in the world.

This is a major achievement. It gives people control over their own personal data while achieving the right balance between protecting fundamental rights and enhancing police cooperation and the exchange of law enforcement data.

Businesses and consumers will have greater clarity thanks to the new rules, which include the requirement that clear consent be provided for the processing of personal data. The legislation will also require parental consent to be given in order for a child to be able to open a social media account.

The regulation gives us new positive rights including the ability to know when your data has been hacked, the use of plain language in requests for personal data and the appointment of data protection officers in firms handling large amounts of data. There will also be fines for companies that do not respect the rules.

A key aspect of the data protection package involves scientific and medical research. It is important to strike the right balance between ensuring patients’ sensitive health data is protected, while facilitating the safe and secure use of patient data for health research.

Personal data is a vital source for observational studies which can lead to medical breakthroughs on serious illnesses including cancer and cardiovascular disease and this new legislation will ensure that this life-saving research can continue with strong safeguards in place for protecting people’s personal information.

Electronic data doesn’t respect country boundaries. It is only when we work together that we can tackle this issue to protect our rights, find medical cures and protect our country.

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Panama Papers: the tip of the iceberg?

large notaxhavensToday we have been confronted with the staggering hypocrisy of a Tory Prime Minister who talks tough on tax havens, and then reveals that he has personally profited from money held in a tax haven…

I think most of us are now very familiar with the ‘Panama Papers’. These documents, leaked from a single law firm in Panama, have revealed the staggering amounts of money hidden in tax havens. This includes not just aggressive tax avoidance by well-known figures, but alleged money laundering.

The vast majority of Britons would have no idea how to set up a secret offshore account in a tax haven, but we’ve seen our public services cut while the richest among us have avoided paying their fair share. Meanwhile, the Tories are putting working families in impossibly difficult financial situations, and leaving disabled people wondering if or when their financial support will be withdrawn.

We already knew that Cameron had personally intervened to water down EU rules on tax havens, and today (after mounting pressure from the public and Labour) Cameron has finally admitted profiting from tax haven funds in the past. With new revelations every day, and some very obvious question dodging from number 10, I’m supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s call for a thorough investigation.

Labour in Westminster and Europe have supported numerous proposals for tackling tax havens, and although David Cameron has been talking tough, his party have been fighting against transparency proposals for years. It was the Tories who opposed a pan European register of companies and their owners, and it was the Tories who fought against EU proposals extending transparency to cover trusts – an easy loophole for the richest in the world to take advantage of.

I hope that the public will keep piling on the pressure, and make sure that the Tories can’t get away with blocking proposals to tackle tax avoidance again.

It’s obvious that tax cheats cross national borders, and that there are staggering amounts of money being withheld from the public purse, where it could be paying for new hospitals, fixing our roads or strengthening our security services.

Action at EU level would put huge pressure on tax havens, and if we remain members of the EU, Labour has the influence in Europe to achieve the reforms we desperately need.

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Leaving the EU would be a bureaucratic nightmare

UK & EU working togetherWe’ve seen lots of different groups declare themselves In over the last few weeks, including Scientists for EU, Universities for Europe and now Lawyers for In. One of the articles that caught my eye has been Lawyers for In talking about the rush of bureaucracy and regulation we’d be faced with if we left the EU. Many Eurosceptic campaigners have said the opposite, so it’s an issue I’d like to tackle now…

Firstly, the lawyers are right. Many people see the EU as a source of bureaucracy, when in reality it has decreased it by a huge amount – by having one rule instead of 28 we open up the markets of all EU countries to trade freely and not to worry about different regulations in different countries. It also means that we don’t pay trade tariffs – that’s a mountain of paperwork we’d have to reintroduce if we left.

If we left the EU, a report by lawyers and academics involved in Lawyers for In has found that we’d have to come up with thousands of new laws to replace the harmonised standards we follow as EU members. This would be a ‘regulation fest’, and would need a bigger UK civil service, and lots more government lawyers to handle it. It’s hard to imagine just how complicated it would be to untangle 40 years of legal ties with the other EU member countries, but it certainly sounds like bureaucracy to me!

So, where does the idea of EU bureaucracy come from? We’ve heard the myths about the EU confiscating hoovers and banning oven mitts, but talk of ‘Brussels meddling’ is also Tory code for basic employment rights.

The Eurosceptic side of the Conservative party has a particular dislike for the Working Time Directive – EU legislation that limits working hours and guarantees you  4 weeks paid holiday a year – and it was widely believed that this was the ‘bureaucracy’ the Tories wanted to get rid of during their EU membership renegotiation. Luckily, Labour MEPs were ready to campaign and make sure that didn’t happen.

On the Remain side, we know that leaving the EU wouldn’t take us into a brave new future, it would take us backwards. We’d lose a whole chunk of EU level rules on protecting the environment, consumer rights and most importantly, working rights. No one likes bureaucracy, and although a little bit of paperwork is always inevitable, leaving the EU would have us swimming in it.


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Pledge your support for equality on this International Women’s day

all-mepsToday is International Women’s Day, and the theme this year is Pledge for Parity. The campaign is calling for everyone, regardless of their field, to support gender equality at work and at home.

This is a brilliant way of approaching inequality, for all of us to commit to stand up for female colleagues made to feel uncomfortable about taking maternity leave, and to speak against comments that undermine the abilities of women in the office or in the pub.

I am saddened that women are still so under-represented in my field, politics. Globally, just 17% of government ministers are women. In the UK parliament, only 29% of MPs are women, although Labour has the best gender balance with over 40% of our MPs being female.

David Cameron has declared that he wants a world where his daughter earns the same as her male colleagues when she enters the world of work, and I want the same for my daughter and granddaughter.

I suggest that he starts by having a word with his own MEPs – only last year, Tory MEPs voted against a report that called for companies to publish their gender pay gap.

We also know that women are disproportionately affected by Tory austerity. There were 5,038 convictions for violence against women and girls in the East Midlands in 2014, but we have seen alarmingly deep cuts to public services. As a result of local authority cuts, 33 domestic violence shelters were axed under the Tory led coalition. When the stakes are this high, political representation for women is even more important.

I am proud to say that Labour are leading the way in the European Parliament, with a majority of female MEPs, while the parliament as a whole has 37%.  I sincerely hope that equal representation will become the norm in the near future.

The EU and the work of your Labour MEPs is a really important part of our progression to equality – It was EU legislation that stopped employers from sacking pregnant women, gave women the right to equal pay and made restraining orders applicable EU wide to protect victims of domestic violence.

Although progress is being made, the fact that a third of the UK parliament was female still made headline news after the 2015 election. If women being half our population but having a third of our MPs is something to be celebrated then we clearly have a long way to go, but I can assure you that Labour will carry on fighting for equality at UK and EU level.”

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Eurosceptics do not own patriotism – staying in the EU is best for Britain

EU & Uk flags merged transparent largeAfter the theatrics of Cameron’s renegotiation, and the spectacle of Tory MPs booing their own Prime Minister, we have a referendum date – 23rd June – and the campaign has officially begun. One of the most frustrating arguments from Eurosceptics, and one that I would like to tackle head on, has been the idea that Eurosceptics are the patriotic side of the debate.

Let’s be clear, Eurosceptics do not have the monopoly on patriotism. The Labour party is proud of Britain, and proud of all we have and will achieve, but we will not settle for a Britain that is less secure, less prosperous and with fewer protections for us at work – we will not settle for going it alone.

We live in an era of countries with populations of a billion people, but Britain’s EU membership makes us a major player in world trade. The EU has 500 million consumers, and we can negotiate much better terms with our EU partners than we would be able to alone. If we leave the EU, we decrease our negotiating power – what would be patriotic about that?

It’s not just about trade or business though. Thousands of Europeans died during centuries of war between our nations. We might take peace for granted, but our parents, grand-parents and great grand-parents died so that we could enjoy it today. We are currently living in the longest period of peace our continent has ever known, with so many trade, economic and personal ties that war is unthinkable. That is something we should be immensely proud of.

I am proud to be British, and proud to be European. We live on a beautiful, prosperous continent, and co-operation between 28 nations that used to be almost constantly at war is an incredible thing. Don’t let the Eurosceptics tell you that the patriotic vote is to leave the EU, because it is simply not true. Our future is working with our partners in Europe, and Labour MEPs will be campaigning to stay in because we want the best for future generations of Britons.

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Booking a holiday soon? Don’t forget your EU rights…

Family on beach]#This week, travel industry figures have spoken out about how a Brexit might affect your summer holiday, pointing out how it was EU level legislation that made flights abroad accessible to more than just an elite.

So, how much do you know about the EU and your holidays?

Firstly, if you travel within the EU, you don’t have to pay for a visa – to enter France or Germany would cost over £40 otherwise, and add another thing to worry about. You can also save on using your phone to call friends and family at home – roaming charges have been dramatically reduced already, and thanks in part to campaigning from Labour MEPs will be completely abolished by 2017.

If something goes wrong, you are also safe in the knowledge that our membership gives you the right to emergency state-funded treatment until your return home, at a reduced cost and in some cases for free.

The EU also gives the best available protection for air passengers. Labour MEPs have supported EU legislation which guarantees the rights of air passengers, and we’ve pushed to ensure that passengers travelling within the EU or on flights to/from an EU airport are adequately protected. If a flight is covered by EU rules, you are entitled to a refund or alternative travel if your flight is cancelled, overbooked or you are denied boarding.

And did you know it was EU legislation that finally stopped those hidden charges appearing on your flights at checkout? Since 2008, airlines have to charge the same prices to all customers within the EU, and the price you see is the price you pay. That means no more £1 pound flights with £100 taxes and checkout fees!

If you are unfortunate enough to become a victim of crime abroad, EU rules even ensure you have access to the police and courts, that you’re protected from further victimisation or intimidation and can access compensation and information in your own language.

With all the chatter about Brexit this week, we need to remember the facts behind our EU membership, and what we’d lose if we left. Labour MEPs will be campaigning to protect all of your EU rights, from fundamental rights at work to compensation for delayed flights – will you join us?

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