Friday, 21 December 2018

Squaring the Brexit Circle

by Les May

IN the 2016 referendum I voted that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union (EU). I assumed that if a majority of people voted like I did the result would be honoured. Even though the outcome was not what I would have wished I believe that the result should be honoured and the UK should leave the EU in accordance with the expressed wish of the majority of the people who voted.

The ONLY question on the ballot paper was about the continued membership of the UK in the EU. There were NO questions about immigration, the European Court of Justice, the Common Fisheries Policy, the Common Agricultural Policy or indeed ANY of the myriad things which are claimed to have been an expression of ‘the will of the people’ by what former Tory politician Chris Patten has called the ‘Maoist Tendency’ of his party. Patten meant by this members of the European Research Group (ERG), one of two publicly funded services maintained for Conservative MPs. The public funding has been to the tune of more than a quarter of a million pounds since 2010.

Is it not remarkable that ‘the will of the people’ just happens to coincide with the wish list these MPs have drawn up and which they want to foist on the rest of us? They make their claims about knowing why people voted in 2016 because they think they have a right to shape the nature of the future relationship of the United Kingdom with the European Union. The outcome of the 2016 referendum DID NOT give them a mandate to do this because there were no questions about it on the ballot paper.

If you doubt what I said in the last paragraph you might like to note that the 116 Tory MPs who voted against Theresa May in last week’s leadership ballot did so because they did not like the nature of the future relationship with the European Union, NOT because she had declined to implement the outcome of the Referendum. Like one or two Labour politicians they have persistently conflated the question of being a member of the EU with the question of our future relationship with it. These questions need to be separated.

The Referendum told us how the first of these questions should be answered i.e. we should leave the EU. It did NOT tell us HOW the second question should be answered.

For the past two years the people who have monopolised discussion of the second question have been that same ‘Maoist Tendency’ of the Tory party. Theresa May’s policy throughout has been to produce a solution which would placate this group. And it’s not just May. Politicians on all sides have been behaving like rabbits trapped in the headlights of the ERG’s speeding car whilst Theresa May squawks ‘Brexit means Brexit’ from the roadside like a demented parrot, too paralysed to make a move towards outlining possible alternative models for our future relationship with the EU after we leave.

That there are alternatives is shown by the fact that parliament will not vote for the ERG’s ‘no deal’ scenario and the ERG will not support May’s present offering. Simply calling for a second referendum, as Tony Blair and Vince Cable have done, or saying ‘all options are on the table’, is a symptom of that paralysis not an example of leadership.

In case you think I am letting Corbyn off the hook here I should make it clear that a Labour government would face all the same problems which are the downside of leaving the EU. So called Labour moderates’ like Chuka Umunna have vacillated between initially toying with alternative models for the UK’s future relationship with the EU and now supporting a ‘people’s vote’ which is a second referendum in all but name. The same criticism can be made of Conservative MP Anna Soubry.

What is needed is a solution which honours the result of the referendum, and which both honours our obligations under the British-Irish Agreement of 10 April 1998 with regard to Northern Ireland and minimises the disadvantages of not being a member of the EU. That means frictionless trade between Britain and the EU.

Should you be one of the people who think there will be no disadvantages I will mention that from 1 February 2019 Europe and Japan will be joined in a free trade area for goods and services covering 650 million people and one third of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). After we leave the EU we will no longer be part of it. Negotiating this deal took five years which may be a pointer to how long it will take a post EU Britain to do likewise.

Why I don’t want a second referendum

I agree with Theresa May that calling a second referendum would undermine our democracy. In my view it would fuel the rise of right wing populism based on the argument that an ‘elite’ had chosen to disregard the expressed view of a majority of the people who voted in the Referendum that we should leave the EU. Anna Soubry has already been subjected to this. I repeat that there was only ONE question on the ballot paper.

I voted Remain in the June 2016. I still believe that we would be better off remaining as members of the EU. I have that in common with the people who are calling for a second referendum whether they are calling it that or giving it the more grandiose title of ‘A People’s Vote’. But I think they are mistaken.

Blair, Cable, Ummuna, Soubry, et al, who all oppose the UK leaving the EU, seem to assume that a second referendum will produce a different result. I can see no reason to take this for granted. No one can be sure that it would not produce the same result again, possibly on a smaller turn out. What then?

Does anyone seriously think that voters will be better informed than last time? The draft Withdrawal Agreement being touted by Theresa May runs to more than five hundred pages. How many voters are going to read and understand it? For that matter how many MPs are going to spend their Christmas holidays reading it? Already the ERG has ‘helpfully’ condensed the 585 pages of the document into a handy seven (7) page guide! Again it seems that the ERG are going to try to monopolise HOW we leave the EU, not just whether we leave the EU.

Nor do I think that any consideration has been given to what question would appear on the ballot paper. Asking the same question as in 2016 simply looks like an attempt to gerrymander the ballot. It says ‘we’ll keep you voting until you come up with the right answer’. So how about if the question is ‘May’s deal or no deal’? That’s just as bad because it precludes any of the alternatives which I, and others, would find more acceptable than either option.

My biggest objection is to those MPs who want a A People’s Vote’ because they do not think there is any outcome which a simple majority of MPs would vote for.

My answer to these MPs is, ‘You lot got us into this mess, so you can get us out of it. It’s your job to collectively explore the options which will both respect the vote to leave the EU and minimise the disadvantages of not being a member of the EU. Ensuring that the UK honours its obligations under the British-Irish Agreement of 1998 is a job for Parliament not for the voters. In other words show some leadership’.

Respecting the vote and minimising the disadvantages

The European Free Trade Area (EFTA) and the European Economic Area (EEA) are not synonymous, but they are linked. Both are outside the EU, both are trading partnerships and neither are ‘political projects’ demanding ever closer political integration.

Membership of EFTA would deliver four things on the ERG wish list; withdrawal from the EU, no common fisheries policy, no common cgricultural policy and the right to enter into bilateral third-country arrangements. EFTA does not issue legislation, nor does it establish a customs union.

Membership of EEA would additionally allow access to the Internal Market of the EU. Specifically excluded from the EEA relationship with the EU are: common agricultural and fisheries policies, customs union, common trade policy, common foreign and security policy, justice and home affairs, direct and indirect taxation and economic and monetary union. Joining would require a continued contribution to the EU, albeit a smaller one resulting in a saving of 12 to 25%, and acceptance of the free movement of goods, capital, services and labour. Norway thinks these are a price worth paying.

I repeat what I have said several times before. The ONLY question on the Referendum ballot paper was about whether we wished to remain in the EU. The EFTA/EEA option delivers not only leaving the EU but many of the other things on the ERG ‘wish list’ which are claimed to be ‘the will of the people’.

If indeed Labour’s policy is ‘If we cannot get a general election, Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote… ’ then the EFTA/EEA option has to be on that table. A customs union, which seems to be Corbyn’s preferred option would only cover goods not services.

What it does not deliver is an end to immigration. Some Labour MPs, e.g. Caroline Flint, are happy to set this demon loose, albeit indirectly. Flint was very careful in her choice of words, but it is clear that whoever posted her exchange with Anna Soubry on YouTube thought she meant immigration and immigrants. She should be warned that in my part of the world the word ‘immigrant’ is frequently taken to mean Pakistanis, many of whom have lived here all their lives.

Instead of asking for a re-run of the Referendum or ‘A People’s Vote’ the MPs who recognise that leaving the EU will bring with it significant disadvantages need to press for wide public discussion of the options open to us which both honour the expressed wish of those who voted to leave the EU and minimise the damage from doing so.

A good start would be to say loud and clear that Theresa May’s primary objective for the past two years has been to appease the ERG by acting as if the Referendum gave her a mandate to deliver all the things on their wish list even though they had never been voted upon.

At some time in the not too distant future Labour has to face the fact that whilst its policy of accepting the result of the Referendum but not committing itself to any definite proposals for the future has been shrewd, putting its faith in winning a vote of no confidence with seemingly no other alternatives being considered may be reckless given the time frame.

If Labour fails to win a no confidence vote and get a general election then I think the Corbyn project would be finished. If Labour wins it, then wins the election which follows and forms a government before 29 March, it will find itself presiding over a chaotic mess.

1 comment:

Carl Faulkner said...

It seems that people who are splitting hairs about the type of leave we have, are those who voted to remain. For them, is it the next best thing?

No one ever voted to join the EU. A referendum to remain in the EEC was all we have ever had. Six subsequent Treaties, none put before the people, changed it into what the majority of voters rejected.

The leave vote was the anti-establishment vote. And I am proud to be part of it. To me and others, it simply means our judiciary and Government of the day can decide what laws we have or do not have, and not be bound in perpetuity by any agreement with the corrupt EU. So, it matters not one jot to me what deal we leave with, as long as I can vote for a Government that can change it, if it so wishes.

That's my idea of democracy.