Could Britain re-enter a reformed EU?

Open Labour Brexit debate

By Hannah Dadd

At a recent event organised by Labour South-West on the subject of the European Union and women’s rights, a clear divide amongst the MPs and MEPs in attendance emerged on the issue of Brexit. The divide could broadly be characterised as between ‘if and ‘when’ factions. That is, between those who regard Britain’s exit from the EU as an inevitability and those who do not.

It is clear to many, inside and outside the Labour Party, that the original EU referendum failed to settle many of the contradictory positions and attitudes espoused by those constituting the leave camp. These contradictory positions will now have major implications for the form Brexit takes and consequently, the legal rights and standards of living enjoyed by millions of British and EU citizens.

In light of the Supreme Court’s judgment on parliament’s role in triggering Article 50 it is clear a second EU referendum is now essential. The lack of transparency and parliamentary oversight of the Brexit process thus far makes the case for a second referendum undeniable. Any such referendum would need to offer the British people a say on the form Brexit will take, alongside a ‘remain’ option. This would need to be combined with a guarantee that all opposition parties have input during negotiations with the European Union.

A second, more explicit referendum may be the only way to ensure national political cohesion in the event of a subsequent leave vote. A second referendum would also reduce the risk of a poorly planned and economically disastrous hard Brexit. It is now the best hope for the Labour Party and the more importantly, the country at large.

Regardless of ones’ position on the inevitability of Brexit, a second referendum is the only means by which to safeguard the future of the Labour Party. For the ‘if’ faction of the party a second, clearer referendum is the only way to avoid accusations the party does not respect the democratic will of the people. Playing any role in blocking Brexit without a second referendum would clearly be electorally disastrous.

Of course, Brexit also poses potential political threats to Theresa May’s government, opening up deep divisions within the Tory party and its electoral coalition. This consequence of the Brexit vote was demonstrated by the result of the Richmond Park by-election and to a lesser extent, Witney. Similar results elsewhere would likely cause panic amongst Tory MPs in the party’s southern heartlands and increase pressure on the Prime Minister from within her own party.

The political fallout of rocky Brexit negotiations and withdrawal from the union is entirely unpredictable. The safest outcome politically for Theresa May, never a fully committed Brexiteer, would be if Brexit were somehow averted, the blame placed squarely on the shoulders of opposition parties.

There are a number of ways Theresa May might attempt such a strategy. Firstly the Prime Minister could ratchet up expectations and jingoistic sentiment to fever pitch. This could be followed by a single make or break parliamentary vote on a deal with so many poison pills for the centre-left and economy as a whole, the opposition and a small but critical number of Tory MPs would be forced to vote against. This is likely to become more likely with the growing recognition of the UK’s lack of negotiating resources and souring relations with European counterparts.

So long as Brexit were killed off properly, affluent Conservative voters would broadly soon forgive the government. Die-hard Brexiteers would have others to blame, and the dangers they put the country in would always remain a debatable “what if” for the uncommitted middle. The rift amongst Labour voters, between its metropolitan and northern working-class heartlands would take far longer to heal, if ever.

Of course a second referendum must not be framed as “that was the wrong answer, let’s try again, now.” In order to be acceptable, the new referendum would have to be seen to offer more than the first; more information and detail of the options on the table. Yet beyond these crucial elements, alternate Brexit packages with an alternative vote format would be highly desirable. In such circumstances, Labour would need to be proactively involved in negotiating one or more acceptable Brexit packages to put to the electorate. Parliament could maintain a responsible role as gatekeeper for which options appear on the final ballot.

The extent of parliament’s role would depend upon a number of considerations. Firstly MPs have a responsibility to safeguard the country from the negative economic and social consequences of a “hard” Brexit (ie complete ejection from the Single Market with no bespoke deal to replace it and reverting to WTO rules). Labour should set huge store on maintaining the EU’s social protections as part and parcel of any trade deal. Any offer to match or exceed those protections in legislation is a red herring for the simple reason that, constitutionally, parliament cannot bind its successors. Any protections in law could be taken back at the stroke of a pen by any sufficiently emboldened future Conservative administration. The unique protection afforded by EU law is to entwine those safeguards with hugely valuable trade deals that are difficult to disengage from, as the Government is now discovering. These considerations will need to be weighed against political concerns about how effectively Labour will be able to make the case for keeping options off the table. I think such an argument is winnable with the right communications strategy (possibly along the lines of the “5 economic tests” for Euro membership from the Blair/Brown era), but these decisions will have to be made over time. The other factor is how much can be gained from European partners on critical issues such as freedom of movement.

In parallel to the domestic political war, making the case for EU reform to our European partners, should be a key part of negotiations. Being able to go back to the UK public with a “better”, full EU option is clearly desirable.

It is clear that the European suffers from the tension caused by each state continuing to have its own national interests, the nation continuing to form the basic unit of political identity for much of the European public. This whilst member states are faced with political and economic problems with only collective solutions (such as the economic crisis and refugee crises). In addition smaller nation states face an increasing competitive disadvantage and struggle to sustain the standard of living their populations have come to expect, which continues to drive the imperative to create and maintain economic union. Those of us still committed to the European project must accept that the manner in which the union currently operates, especially with regard to freedom of movement, poses a political threat to the bloc’s long-term future, not only with regard to Brexit.

If the current Labour leadership will not countenance such a strategy, a senior member of the party should be entrusted with the task, possibly deputy leader Tom Watson or former leader Ed Miliband. A Labour negotiating team should be formed (I would suggest both Ed Miliband and Stephen Kinnock as appropriate figures to begin with), to reach out to European partners directly, circumventing an incalcitrant government. Holding off commencement of negotiations until after national elections in key EU member states, including Germany and France, would be very much advisable.

It is clear that the European suffers from the tension caused by each state continuing to have its own national interests, whilst faced with political and economic problems which have only collective solutions (such as the economic crisis and refugee crises). Those of us still committed to the European project must accept that the manner in which the union currently operates, especially with regard to freedom of movement, pose a political threat to the bloc’s long-term future. Stephen Kinnock, Emma Reynolds and Paul Mason have all made constructive suggestions with regard to many of the issues troubling large swathes of the electorate.

One possible solution to the tensions faced would be a two tier political-economic structure, constituting a series of smaller, closer regional unions of countries with geographic, cultural or historic ties. This would in turn be combined with a looser, overarching economic and social partnership, dedicated to tackling global issues, such as climate change. Freedom of movement should be reformed within the “broader” EU to maintain the benefits, but allow limits on the right to resettle to work where the consensus for the policy breaks down in individual member states. Of course such an approach should ideally be on the basis of reform to entitlements of all European member states rather than simply demanding exceptions for the UK, as has often been the case historically.

If such an approach were to disadvantage any particular region, then forms of compensation should be considered. This would include temporarily altering state aid rules, or perhaps offering direct EU aid toward the construction of large infrastructure projects and joint military bases (providing high quality employment opportunities for economic groups more likely to be sceptical of the EU in the process). Greater flexibility along these lines may go some way to easing the economic crisis on the union’s periphery, relaxing rules and regulations and allowing for greater state intervention in the economy on a temporary basis. It is also clear that the idea of single European currency has failed. Replacing it with regional ‘Euros’ combined with the regional unions suggested above avoids derailing the European project and would make peripheral member states’ economies more competitive.

Those opposed to a second referendum are likely to highlight the negative political and economic effects of the original referendum as good enough reason to avoid another. Yet a second referendum debate framed by possible ways to reform the European Union on more progressive, sustainable terms is more likely to achieve a positive outcome for the remain side.

In Greek mythology, the first woman, Pandora, opened a box letting all the evils into the world. On replacing the lid, a single item remained: hope. Let the Labour Party be the force for hope in British politics, offering a progressive vision for the Britain and the European Union’s future.

Open Labour will debate its official position on Brexit and the EU at our conference on March 11th. Why not join us an take part?

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