A Brexit speech for a Labour leader

I stand here to give a speech which I had hoped not to have to make.

I campaigned hard for Remain before 23 June. I wanted the United Kingdom to stay in the European Union, as did 16 million fellow Britons. But 17 million fellow Britons voted otherwise. They delivered a clear, though narrow, verdict.

Labour has said that we respect the referendum result. And so we do. The United Kingdom, as the Prime Minister has said, is leaving the European Union. I am not here to talk about how to stop Brexit, but how best to implement it.

We respect the decision taken; we also respect the fact that it was narrow. We live in a deeply divided country. If we want to bring it back together, we have to find a settlement which can appeal, at least in part, to both sides of the national argument last year.

Perhaps that sounds uninspiring. Boring, even. But if the referendum made anything clear, it showed that we have become far too divided a country.

I believe we need to rediscover the virtue of compromise; of remembering that we usually do have more in common, as Jo Cox MP – so tragically taken from us last year – said in her maiden speech; of meeting our friends and neighbours halfway.

Labour believes that ‘by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone’. But working together requires finding common ground. And today I want to outline how Labour would make that possible.

Listening to Leave voters

Any attempt at doing that must start with asking ourselves: what were Leave and Remain voters saying on 23 June?

For Leave voters, sovereignty played a crucial role. There is always a balance here. We can keep our rights to do things our own way, on our own – but that often means the way others do things affects us and shapes our own choices, sometimes decisively or almost completely.

Or we can agree to do things together with other countries, knowing we’ll have to compromise a bit, but often having a greater real say in the overall package than we’d have had on our own.

Just as no-one sensible believes that we can’t do anything together with other countries, no-one sensible believes there’s nothing we can best deal with by ourselves. There’s no 100% right answer to where the line is: and those of us who campaigned to Remain must accept that we failed to convince enough people that the line lies in the right place now.

The UK’s global ties were also important to many people who voted to leave. Our global story is also part of our European story. For better and for worse, Britons, French, Spaniards, Dutch, Portuguese and many others crossed the seas – as soldiers, settlers, farmers, factory workers, missionaries and far more. As Quebec and Latin America could remind us, transatlantic ties are not just the United Kingdom’s to enjoy.

But the UK has an exceptionally strong sense of its global ties today. That’s partly down to the English-speaking democracies with whom so many Britons share bonds of family, friendship and affection. It’s partly due to the sheer reach of past British expansion. And of course, it’s partly linked to our distinctive version of shared sacrifice in two world wars.

There’s no conflict between being European and having ties elsewhere. But I fear pro-Europeans too often – without meaning to – managed to join some opponents of the EU in inventing a tension where there didn’t need to be. And we know many who voted Leave thought of our friends further afield when they made their decision.

And third, of course, migration. Too many people have talked as though this was the only thing Leave voters thought of. It wasn’t, and we do fellow citizens a disservice in pretending otherwise. But no-one can deny that concerns, fears and anger about migration played a crucial role in the vote on 23 June.

Now, at this point Labour politicians go on to talk about wage levels, about exploitation of migrant labour, about funding for public services in areas of high recent migration – and I will. We must condemn prejudice and celebrate the contribution immigrants make to the UK – and I will always do that. But economics doesn’t address all the reasons many people are worried, even angry.

Much of people’s concern about immigration stems from culture, not economics. I am not saying that anyone with these concerns is racist or prejudiced. I am saying that many people, probably most, are ambivalent at best and unhappy at worst about rapid and unmanaged change, especially when it feels done to them rather than with them.

Concern stems from views about different cultural attitudes, too. Everyone has characteristics and instincts shaped by their nationality and upbringing, so this is not a attack on anyone’s worth or culture. It’s simply to say that, just as people with different personalities can sometimes need to think about how to get along, so can people with different cultural backgrounds. And we have shied away from that discussion for too long.

Reassuring Remainers

So any way forward needs to find a way of speaking to those concerns. But what of the second-largest number of votes cast for any cause in British history? What about those who voted Remain?

First, we need to acknowledge many Remainers’ strong sense of internationalism – not a passionate love of European institutions, but something broader than that. Many Remain voters don’t just see it as a practical necessity to get on with the neighbours; they believe it to be a good thing in itself.

Many have travelled elsewhere in Europe; they may have friends there, or remember spending time there themselves. They value their, their children and their grandchildren’s rights to live and work elsewhere.

And of course, many of us remember the European Union’s origins as a peace project – a way for Europeans to argue in council chambers over product standards, not with tanks over borders. As they go to Brussels, UK ministers need to remember that too, and respect how seriously our partners take it. It is not only a majority of UK voters who can value politics and history just as much as economics.

Second, a commitment to EU rights and standards loomed large for many Remainers – especially Labour Remainers. It would be easy for me to attack a Tory Government here, and rest assured we will whenever it is merited. But it goes deeper than that.

The rights to parental leave, to consultation at work, to protection for temporary employees; it is indeed often true that the UK’s legislation goes further than the EU minimum. But European minimum standards set a floor for all of us – not just the UK. Some Conservatives may want the UK to try to undercut the Netherlands; but actually, the rules help protect all our social models.

Similarly, many who remember what British beaches and rivers were like in the 1970s will know that EU environmental standards have changed things for the better. The EU is one of the world’s most forceful actors on climate change – no, not forceful enough, but more so than anyone else, and one whose word as the world’s largest economy matters.

Tory threats to scrap those rights and standards, to move towards an ever-more-ruthless free-for-all if the EU fails to agree a deal to their liking, are unlikely to survive contact with the voters for now. But it would be exactly the sort of destructive race to the bottom common rules are in place to stop.

Third and most prominently, the economy was a crucial reason millions voted Remain. This isn’t really about the fears of an economic shock – not in the long-term. Those of us who campaigned to Remain should have the grace to say we expected the reaction to be far worse than, so far, it has been.

It is about the inescapable heft and proximity of the European single market. The EU covers around 44% of our exports on its own. Add in the Swiss and the EEA countries, all of whom are in the EU’s single market to varying degrees, and the countries with a partial customs union with the EU, and it’s over half. And that doesn’t even consider the free trade deals already struck by the EU.

Bringing Britons together: a moderate Brexit

So any way forward should address both sides’ concerns, while fulfilling the mandate to leave. We should pursue a moderate, reasonable Brexit: a settlement our country can unite around for this generation. We must also seek a settlement which works for the European Union, whose survival and prosperity is a vital national and continental interest.

First of all, a moderate Brexit must be moderately implemented. In particular, we cannot allow ourselves to be driven off a cliff-edge by an ideological insistence on the fastest Brexit possible. The negotiations which lie ahead are the most complex we have had to negotiate in modern times. We must allow for a transitional deal, so we have time to get this right.

I believe our final deal must include membership of the single market. In many ways, the single market is a British invention. It goes far further than any free trade deal ever can. The reason Theresa May talks of preserving ‘single market arrangements in some areas’ – never mind the fact our partners won’t stand for cherry-picking – is this: she knows full well they cannot be bettered outside the single market.

It is quite possible to be in the single market and outside the EU. Plenty of Leavers looked to Norway’s place in the European Economic Area before the referendum. The EEA focuses on exactly the thing many eurosceptics in the UK said they always wanted: the most unfettered trade possible within Europe.

Norway is not in the EU. It plays no part in the Common Agricultural Policy or the Common Fisheries Policy. No EEA law takes direct effect in Norway; the Norwegian Parliament enacts it, and has more flexibility than an EU member. Political union is not an aim of the EEA. Norway makes smaller contributions to shared activity than it would as an EU member. There is a safeguard clause for legislation with unacceptable consequences – though Norway has very rarely had to use it. In principle, the EEA or something like it is the main arrangement able to include passporting for financial services.

As the Prime Minister has said, trade is not the only area where we wish to work with our European allies. Climate change is a shared challenge. The EU’s Emissions Trading System also includes Norway. The UK could be a leading player in green energy if it wanted to be, so it makes good sense for us to seek to stay inside. We should be no less keen to work with the rest of Europe on security and extraditions after Brexit than we were before and should be keeping the substance of the European Arrest Warrant, as far as possible.

The customs union and the Irish Border

Finally, the Prime Minister has argued for a renewed focus on trade deals elsewhere in the world once we leave the EU. I understand this: one argument for Brexit was pursuing new markets elsewhere. But at the moment, as a part of the EU’s customs union, our businesses are spared a tidal wave of paperwork in exporting to the rest of the EU. We are also spared customs checks on our only land border.

This is a difficult choice. Making the best of Brexit might be argued to require looking across the world for new business and new markets. But it is hard to see how the UK is likely, for now, to strike the kind of deals which would make up for such major new barriers with our largest market.

Above all, we cannot risk creating a hard border on the island of Ireland lightly. Any changes to our position in the customs union will require the closest consultation with Ireland and with the Northern Ireland parties. Labour will press the Government to ensure this happens.

Any measures which could reduce the burden of checks should be considered: facilities to carry out EU customs checks in the UK for Ireland-bound goods and vice versa, for instance, or ways of pre-certifying goods bound across the Irish Border. We should learn from Norway and Sweden, who ensure only one national authority needs to check goods. The UK should stand ready to discuss how such measures might be delivered and funded with Ireland.

And if broad consent in Northern Ireland can be found for special measures or some special status there, then – given its unique position – the UK, Ireland and the EU should give them the most serious consideration.

The issue of the customs union is almost uniquely difficult. We need time to address the challenges it raises. We should remain in customs union with the EU during the transitional period, during which we will be seeking to re-establish the trade deals we currently have as an EU member. We can do that from within a customs union with the EU.

And let us then take our final decision on its future on evidence, not ideology.

A close neighbour and a closer Union

My judgment is that the best approach – one which increases our domestic sovereignty, allows a renewed sense of global ties, supports our economy and protects our social rights – lies in membership of the single market, through the EEA or some other means.

I believe this path, together with close co-operation in security and foreign policy, reflects our position as a European nation with ties elsewhere. A close friend to the EU for whom its degree of integration has proved too great.

It also speaks to all four countries in our United Kingdom. The Scottish Government has been loud in seeking a differentiated solution for Scotland. The Welsh Government has put forward proposals of its own.

I do not believe the right solution for the UK is to create new borders within the UK. It is, instead, to respect the devolved nations’ concerns as part of a UK-wide settlement. Not Nicola Sturgeon’s seeming determination to use Brexit as a wedge for separation; not Theresa May’s seeming indifference to the views of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; but a settlement which can bring us all back together.

Free movement as managed movement

But I am not going to lie about the price of staying in the single market. Too many politicians have peddled too many myths over the years. The price of staying in the single market is some form of free movement of labour.

We have to understand that our EU partners are not bluffing about this. The European project relies on common rules for common benefits. For them, conceding that principle sets a dangerous precedent for the future. If one country can unpick parts of the single market, others can too. We need to recognise this and respect it. But I also know immigration was one of the main reasons people voted to leave the EU.

Faced with this, some say we should offer up our own people’s jobs on the altar of cutting migration. Others say we should ignore public concerns and carry on regardless. Still others say we should simply demand the single market and a end to free movement. The first ignores our people’s future; the second ignores democratic reality; the third ignores the clear views of our European partners. None of these are good enough.

What we need to do is find a way to handle the way free movement operates – and, over time, to better handle the pace of change. Not ‘free movement’ as we have implemented it in the UK so far, nor a denial of economic reality, but managed movement.

First, we need to make better use of the powers we already have to manage movement from the rest of Europe better. There’s no need to wait for Brexit to do this; a Labour Government could start working on it now. After three months, we actually have a right to tell EEA citizens they need to show they are working or studying or have the resources to support themselves if they wish to remain in the UK. We don’t do it at the moment. Let’s look at it.

Second, there are issues we can talk about in Brexit negotiations, especially around benefit claims and hiring policy. Of course, the vast majority of EEA citizens actually come here to work. But because of the way tax credits work in the UK, we do have concerns here about whether people have made a contribution before they start to receive benefits as well.

Article 112 of the EEA Agreement allows non-EU members to take safeguard measures if there are ‘serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties of a sectorial or regional nature liable to persist’. We should, if possible, seek a political understanding that the UK will take some proportionate action on EEA migrant benefits as an EEA member. We should also explore the possibility, as the Swiss (with extensive single market access, though not EEA membership) have recently, that those who have registered as jobseekers in the UK might be given priority for jobs over new arrivals.

We should also take action on wages and skills, so more British people are able to do jobs which others currently fill. Some pro-Europeans have bemoaned the rise in wages offered by agricultural employers in Lincolnshire. Not I. No social democrat worthy of the name should bemoan a better deal for low-paid workers. Labour’s commitment to higher wages and to tackling exploitation could open more of those jobs to British citizens.

We need to do far more both to support British citizens to develop new skills – so they have no need to worry about competition from others, because they will know they can hold their own. And considering migration from outside Europe, we should be willing to probe a bit deeper on whether we could be training more people here. If we struggle to find people in the UK who want to work in Indian or Chinese restaurants, for instance (as we have in the past), we should ask why more often.

Finally, we need to talk more about integration. The vast majority of people who make their home here want to play a full part here. In reality, people in the UK are mostly pretty good at getting on together. And evidence suggests that when people are reassured that immigrants overwhelmingly do wish to contribute, join in and integrate – which they do – their concern about immigration falls considerably.

So partly, we need to reassure people and show we value people living together, not just living beside each other. We should not be relaxed about the idea of people living parallel lives.

But there are some areas where we do have a problem. And it is progressive to say as much and look to do something about it. There is nothing left-wing about people, disproportionately women, finding themselves unable to get help they need or talk to people in their local area because they don’t speak enough English. There is nothing left-wing about cutting government funding for language classes. And to ask (and fund) councils to do more to support integration in their local areas would be good for new immigrants and established communities alike.

No one policy or strategy will succeed in squaring this circle. But making use of the powers we already have, seeking adjustments where this is feasible, taking real action on wages and skills and doing more to ensure people live together not apart can both better manage the pace of change and help address its consequences.

Wider Europe

No speech on UK strategy should ignore our wider European role outside the EU.

The UK is a European country and we must remain committed to European values. That includes the Council of Europe – wholly separate from the EU – and the basic values enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.

The ECHR is the Council of Europe’s greatest creation and one of the world’s most remarkable backstops for basic decency anywhere in the world. Britons led the way in putting it together; assumptions that long informed the common law became part of its warp and weft.

Our membership of the Convention does not just matter to us: it matters to our whole continent. The European Court of Human Rights is far from perfect, but it matters to Russian human rights activists who struggle to get their cases to Strasbourg. It matters to novelists in Turkey who look to the Convention to help protect their free expression.

Quite rightly, our neighbours would be appalled were the UK – one of the world’s great democracies – to withdraw from its commitment to such a basic instrument of human rights protection.

Co-operation on extradition, on security and much else besides could be threatened if we no longer adhered to common human rights standards. Further, our influence in the counsels of our continent – a continent in which we will always need and wish to play a role – would be badly hurt.

But above all, the true values and true nature of the country where Amnesty International was born could never be served by turning our back on human rights protections. We seek a different relationship with the rest of Europe. But Labour wants no part in abandoning Europe’s finest values.

Protecting the West

The United Kingdom must also remain unequivocally committed to the collective security of our continent. How and to what extent we co-operate with the EU on military matters is a matter for negotiation, but our commitment to our continent through Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty is not. We stand with our neighbours.

And here, we cannot ignore the challenges to our east and the changes to our west. I don’t propose to say too much about President Trump today. The UK, and Europe as a whole, must of course retain a close relationship with the United States, above all through NATO. We must also be able to speak frankly where we disagree.

But we Europeans must recognise that our ability to speak frankly and our ability to defend ourselves are intrinsically linked. Credible defence is the foundation of an ethical foreign policy, to coin a phrase.

To our east, Vladimir Putin leads a country which, just three years ago, altered the boundaries of Europe to its own direct benefit for the first time since 1945. That country’s interference in the democratic processes of the West is now well-documented.

The UK, as Europe’s leading defence power, retains a crucial role in Europe. We must not abdicate it. We must build on our links within NATO, and our bilateral agreements with France. We should also seek to retain the right – like Norway, Serbia, Switzerland and Ukraine – to take part in joint procurement via the European Defence Agency, where this is in our interest.

But above all, we and other Europeans must have a serious, honest conversation about our defence capabilities. It should go without saying that the target of 2% of GDP on defence should be met by every NATO member. But more than that, we must ask whether that level will suffice to keep our continent safe.

Because we may be leaving the European Union, but we could not leave Europe even if we wanted to. And our neighbours’ security will always be part and parcel of our own.

Labour’s approach today

So we seek membership of the single market; a close relationship with the EU after Brexit, while strengthening our ties elsewhere; a balanced approach to managing migration within the single market and from outside the EU; and a firm commitment to European values and security. Where does this leave Labour, facing a Conservative Government?

We will be a responsible Opposition. The times are too grave to play games now. We will judge the Government against the vision I have set out, and we will reach out to other parties and other MPs who share some or all of it. And where the Government get it right, we will support it.

So I say this to the Prime Minister: you are not the prisoner of your backbenchers. You need not put their ideological obsessions above our country’s interests. Where you do the right thing for British jobs, British workers and British safety, Labour will support you. You can be as brave as you want to be.

In Government, we will accept that the question of EU membership is settled for this generation. But if this Conservative Government drags the UK out into a hard, damaging, reckless Brexit, Labour will work towards a partnership of the kind I have described today. We will reach out the hand of friendship to our fellow Europeans and bring our fellow Britons back together.

Perhaps it is unusual for a Labour leader to cite Churchill rather than Attlee. But in a speech about reuniting a nation, it makes some sense to look across the party divides. On 11 May 1953, he said:

Where do we stand? We are not members of the European Defence Community, nor do we intend to be merged in a Federal European system. We feel we have a special relation to both. This can be expressed by prepositions, by the preposition “with” but not “of”—we are with them, but not of them.

Churchill was enlisted by both sides of the referendum debate. But it might be fitting if our new place in Europe and the world reflected his real complexity more than the partisan moulds into which he has been shoehorned.

The future I describe is not the one I argued for before 23 June. But for this moment, for this generation, it might be one with which we all can live.

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