There’s no doubt that the fallout from the 2016 EU Referendum, when the country voted to leave membership of the European Union by 51.9% to 48.1%, is the most serious our country has faced over the last forty years or so.
The arguments the Remain camp have against the Referendum result are many and varied: the question was flawed and unconstitutional, the majority is barely…a majority, the Leave campaign made false claims, and even ‘broke electoral law’. Leave campaigners state that the result is the will of the people, that ‘Remoaners’ – ‘the establishment’ – are trying to thwart this by rubbishing the Leave campaign, and that Project Fear 2.0 is being unleashed. They reject the recent report from the all-party Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Select Committee where evidence was presented indicating interference of Russia in the democratic elections of sovereign states, including in the EU Referendum. The irony.
The debate has raged on for over two years, with Parliament having voted in favour of leaving EU membership, accepting and respecting the Referendum result. Now the Government and Parliament are trying to determine how we leave, what our new relationship should be with our closest geographical neighbours, who we have been trading with, and at war with (although not since the Treaty of Paris which kicked off the EU after World War II), for the last two thousand years.
What we know is that before the end of 2018, there will be two European Council Summits, one on 18th and 19th October and another on 13th and 14th December. At one of these, the heads of states from across the 27 EU member states must agree to ratify both the financial settlement from the UK (‘the divorce bill’) to leave the legal obligations associated with being a member of the EU. In addition, a statement on the future relationship between the EU and the UK must also be agreed. Following the Summit, these have to be voted on by the British and European Parliaments prior to our scheduled departure date on 29th March 2019. It is only after this has been settled by all these parties that detailed trade discussions between the EU and UK can begin.
So this is a pretty tight timetable already. Add a little politics into the mix and it gets even trickier. In July, the Government attempted to define the new future relationship between the UK and EU in its White Paper which led to resignations, some ideological others not, from the Cabinet and uproar from the right wingers of the so-called European Research Group (and a handful of Labour MPs as well). Another chasm opened up in the Tory Party. The Labour Party’s official position is that we do not accept the narrowness of the Tories’ White Paper but want to honour our commitment to leave the EU. We believe the Tory’s customs plan is unworkable and we would seek a much more comprehensive UK-EU customs union that allows tariff-free access to Europe. However, some Labour (and some Tory) MPs, not content with either of their Party’s position, are calling for a second vote (the People’s vote) on the deal (the statement) to be agreed. They are concerned, as am I, that the type of deal will determine not just the future relationship the UK has with the EU, but our future prosperity, security, health and much more.
It is clear that the different factions within each Party will put pressure on their respective leaders during Conference season. But each perspective presents different dangers. If the right of the Tory Party get their way, the prospect of a ‘no deal’ at the December EU Council Summit (I really can’t see it happening in October) becomes very real. What will happen to the price of food, 40% of which comes tariff-free from the EU if we crash out with no deal? What will happen to the farmers who currently export, for example, 40% of all British lamb, tariff free, to France? Or the businesses and their workers who currently import the parts they need from Europe or one of the 70 or so other countries we have tariff free trade agreements or arrangements with via EU membership?
Similarly, if we had a second referendum tomorrow, how would this be exploited by the right? It would be painted as ‘not leaving’ in practice, ‘the establishment’ holding elections until they get their own way. A poll just under a month ago showed only 50% wanted a People’s Vote, less than those who voted to leave. The implications of holding this second referendum without a clear, unequivocal mandate for it from the people, would be an even more divided country with trust in politics and politicians at even lower levels than it is now. I’m also not convinced that if one of the questions was ‘do you support the UK leaving the EU with ‘no deal’?’ that it would be clearly rejected.
Having said that, I don’t think it should be ruled out, either! To avoid these divisions there should be a clear, unambiguous majority of people (60% minimum), including from ‘Leave’ constituencies like mine, in favour of having a say on the type of deal the Government want to strike with the EU. Not an easy task in the next 3 months.
MP for Oldham East & Saddleworth
30th August 2018