On Article 50

Whether the Supreme Court was legally correct to say that Parliament must legislate before the Government can invoke Article 50 is for others to debate. Rightly, the courts gave judgment and have settled the issue. Politically, I always believed the Government should seek approval from Parliament for its timing and strategy.

But the Supreme Court’s decision places Labour in a truly poisonous position. Most of our voters backed Remain; most of our seats backed Leave. We cannot defy the referendum result; we cannot back a hard Brexit. I do not envy our embattled MPs.

Second Reading

I can see why Jeremy Corbyn wishes to ask Labour MPs to vote for the Article 50 Bill at Second Reading. And ultimately, I won’t blame him for that, although I disagree with a three-line whip. I know Labour cannot simply ignore the referendum result, and that many – probably most – will feel they should vote in favour to show they accept that result.

But Labour MPs overwhelmingly backed Remain. In many cases, their constituents did too. MPs like Jo Stevens, Catherine West and Tulip Siddiq put themselves at great risk if they ignore their own residents’ views. And some – those who are and have always been committed Europeans – will feel their consciences can only stretch so far.

I accept parties of government must have a position on such issues, but frankly I see little point in pretending Labour is in any danger of being in government soon anyway. The current struggle is for survival – one which many MPs will struggle to win if they alienate their Remain-voting constituents. Jeremy can take his position, and most Labour MPs will back him, but it is divisive and unhelpful to force MPs’ consciences at Second Reading. MPs will split hopelessly anyway; best to make some shred of virtue out of overwhelming necessity.

Third Reading

The more important question for the national interest is how Labour MPs vote at Third Reading. Here, there comes a point where Labour MPs must consider the policy consequences of their votes, however electorally inconvenient that may be. Reluctantly, I accept the country voted to leave: overriding the vote without a referendum would be anti-democratic and could occasion a terrible backlash against mainstream politics, and we would lose a second referendum by a larger margin than the first. We now need to try to minimise the damage. As such, I recognise Labour cannot reject Article 50 en masse regardless of the circumstances.

But once the UK triggers Article 50, we have a two-year window in which to negotiate an exit agreement, hopefully with a transitional deal as we move to a new relationship with the EU. It’s all very well to talk about meaningful parliamentary votes on the deal, but we can only extend those talks if every other EU member agrees. It’s legally uncertain whether we could even revoke Article 50 outright unilaterally, but clearly the Government will not do so. That means a vote on the final deal on exit and transition is very likely to be a choice between whatever May comes up with or nothing at all. Backing the Tories’ deal or being thrown out on WTO rules isn’t much of a choice.

If Parliament really wants to influence the shape of Brexit, it has to exercise that influence now, before the two-year countdown starts. And that means Labour’s backing for the Article 50 Bill must depend upon the amendments the Commons passes. If Labour MPs will not vote against the Article 50 Bill at Third Reading in any circumstances, they will effectively show that in the final analysis, they are prepared to let any kind of Brexit through.

The referendum gives Theresa May no right to a blank cheque. Nor does she have a right to ride roughshod over the views of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’s administrations and legislatures. Her form of Brexit will do enormous damage to the people Labour represents. It may well poison our relations with the rest of Europe at the very time when the United States may abandon our continent too. Labour should not sign her cheque so long as it stays blank.

Labour and Brexit

More broadly, Labour needs to be frank about the true implications of what Theresa May plans to do. She has said she wants to leave the single market and the customs union, although she seems to have some notion of simplifying customs proceedings. Responding to her speech, Keir Starmer said: ‘It is good that she has ruled out that hard Brexit at this stage.’ He also said ‘I accept that form follows function’.

His response ignores the secret of the single market. The rules and institutions of the single market are the single market: the form creates the function. It is simply not the case that May’s ‘bold and ambitious free trade agreement’ will do the same job. And Labour does no service to scrutiny by allowing that elision to pass unchallenged.

Jeremy Corbyn’s response shows where such a path leads us:

We welcome that the Prime Minister has listened to the case we’ve been making about the need for full tariff free access to the single market but are deeply concerned about her reckless approach to achieving it.

It is simply not good enough to say ‘hard Brexit’ is only about process, not endpoint. Labour should back remaining in the single market and level with voters about the tradeoffs – as well as the reality of our EU partners’ position. The Opposition should puncture the Government’s delusions, not indulge them.

In conscience

Finally, I will not lie about what I would do at Second Reading if I were a Labour Member of Parliament. I could not in good conscience vote to give any impression I approve of what we are about to do. I do not approve, even if I try to be resigned. I am a passionate European and I always have been. I believe the European project is, for all its faults, the greatest attempt to build relations between our countries on the basis of law and not just power we have ever seen. I believe it has made an invaluable contribution to peace, democratisation and constitutionalism on the continent of Europe. I believe it is part of a web of institutions and habits of mind and inaccurate historical memories, a web which helps keep the dark heart of man at bay. And I would not want it said that the United Kingdom’s representative assembly walked away from it as one.


NATO: on solidarity

Labour is collectivist by instinct and culture. Founded by the trade unions, it could hardly be otherwise. The welfare state the Attlee Government did so much to build was founded on collective insurance. Labour has stood in solidarity with oppressed groups, minority communities, countries under attack and many others in the past.

Collective security is solidarity by another name. It’s wholly fitting, therefore, that the Attlee Government took the United Kingdom into NATO as a founding member. As the Cold War deepened, western Europe needed the United States to guarantee its security. Not all NATO’s members were always democratic, but it nonetheless bound free Europe to the US. Since then, it has formed the bedrock of British defence policy. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty provides almost our ultimate insurance – our fallback in an existential crisis.

When the Iron Curtain lifted and the Soviet Union fell, new eastern European democracies wanted to join NATO. Given their history, it’s hardly surprising. On a continent where collective security lost its meaning, Chamberlain and Daladier browbeat Edvard Beneš into signing away the Sudetenland in September 1938. Czechoslovakia was dismembered by Hitler the following March. A Franco-British guarantee meant nothing. In September 1939, Britain and France did honour their guarantee to Poland. Poland still suffered years of unspeakable horror. In 1945, eastern Europe came under Soviet control: the ‘people’s democracies’ only fell in 1989. Again, the West stood aside. You might say the West had little alternative in 1945-8: it’s a sobering and unedifying story nonetheless.

That so many of those countries have now joined the community of Western democracies is a cause for celebration. Churchill’s ‘capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe’ no longer languish behind an Iron Curtain, but have joined with their sisters to their west. NATO has provided the anchoring for a community of states linked by law to grow together.

The last Labour Government was a good friend to eastern Europe – championing its right to a place in the Western world. And until now, no Labour leader has ever wavered in their support for the Atlantic Alliance. Michael Foot opposed nuclear weapons, but he kept Labour pledged to NATO. Jeremy Corbyn’s ambivalence at present and in public, and his hostility in the past and probably in private, is unique. His opposition to NATO deployment in eastern Europe as a deterrent to a revanchist Russia is deeply misguided. His refusal to say he would defend NATO allies under attack is profoundly dangerous.

In 2017, eastern Europeans have good cause to value their NATO membership. In February 2014, Russia and Estonia signed an (admittedly unratified) agreement finalising their border. In March, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea because Ukraine wanted to sign a deal with the European Union. Both countries have large Russian minorities. Both once formed part of the USSR. Granted, Ukraine is central to Russia’s sense of self in a way which doesn’t hold true for the Baltics (of course, this doesn’t make its aggression any better). But another crucial difference is the guarantee under Article 5.

It would be unwise enough in normal circumstances to disdain our current insurance policy with no alternative in mind. In these abnormal ones, it is almost farcical in its foolishness. In 2014, a great power annexed a neighbour’s territory on the continent of Europe for the first time since 1945. Its leader is hostile to the liberal international order on which the UK relies, and nothing in his history suggests ‘relationship resets’ or a pacifying stance will appease him. It has links to far right (and radical left) parties in democratic Europe. It props up a toxic but anti-Western regime in Syria. It interfered in the US presidential election and may have even affected the outcome.

Thanks in no small part to the US election, NATO has rarely faced greater threats from within. In eight days’ time, a man whose commitment to European security is questionable will become President of the United States. That Donald Trump and Theresa May agreed on the importance of NATO in a telephone call is of limited comfort, even if he meant what he said. Credibility means everything in deterrence: it matters that Trump once said he wouldn’t mind too much if NATO dissolved, not just whether he continues saying such things as President. This is exactly the moment at which European governments must try to ensure NATO does not wither on the vine. It’s also a moment when NATO’s word must be seen to be its bond. I struggle to imagine a worse time to argue for undermining its shared deterrence strategy in Europe.

History makes clear that Britain cannot ignore the rest of Europe, that its security is bound up with its continent. Brexit does not change the essential fact, however much Nigel Farage might like it to. If the US disengages, Europeans will need to look to our own security: the UK has no opt-out. But in any event, it would be profoundly wrong to let Putin dictate policy in eastern Europe – and even more so to regard any NATO ally as somehow dispensable. I see nothing left-wing about old-style spheres of influence. I see nothing progressive in ignoring eastern Europeans’ right to choose their own destinies. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania became liberal democracies by their own free choice. They are our allies. They deserve better than to be treated as our buffer states.

Collective security is vital for democratic Europe. It has not faced such severe threats from without for many years. It has rarely, if ever, seemed more besieged from within. Britain could never separate itself from the fallout if it broke down. And even if it could, it would be an appalling act to abandon our friends and allies to Vladimir Putin. No true progressive should countenance it.

1707 and 1973: Scotland, the UK and Brexit

When a 62% Remain vote in Scotland met a 52% Leave vote across the UK, the Union of 1707 looked shaky to many. Nicola Sturgeon promptly said a second independence referendum was highly likely. Support for Yes spiked briefly in the polls. Frankly, as a half-Scottish European, I was severely tempted myself – despite being a fervent Unionist in 2014.

Since then, somewhat to my surprise, support for Yes now looks pretty similar to 2014. This has, so far, held even as it’s become clear Theresa May takes a hardline view of the Brexit vote. No doubt as a result, Sturgeon – who has no desire to lose a second referendum and really bury the issue – has tried to keep her options open. Her stated position is that her priority for now is to keep the whole UK within the single market. This would be the best possible Brexit outcome for Scotland and for the rest of the Union.

However, she has also spent plenty of time arguing Scotland could stay in the single market even while the rest of the UK left. Clearly, this ‘differentiated solution’ has a distinct political edge: Sturgeon has an interest in the UK being seen not to meet Scotland’s wishes. Still, the UK was always asymmetrical, and voters in Scotland voted decisively to remain. It is also fair to say Sturgeon has softened her position quite a bit from demanding Scottish EU membership post-Brexit. So taking it at face value, what would the differentiated solution entail?

The ‘differentiated solution’: Liechtenstein-in-Europe

The Scottish Government’s paper Scotland’s Place in Europe suggests Scotland could stay in both the EEA and the UK customs union. The document cites the principle of ‘parallel marketability’. This is the model Liechtenstein uses vis-à-vis Switzerland, while participating in the EEA. Because Liechtenstein has a customs union with Switzerland, it has to adopt Swiss technical standards and regulation in a wide range of areas. But the EEA also requires Liechtenstein to adopt its technical standards and regulation.

As a result, EEA and relevant Swiss law are now simultaneously applicable in Liechtenstein. Liechtenstein agreed this with Switzerland, and the EEA also agreed to accept the arrangement. Products meeting either Swiss or EEA standards can be sold in Liechtenstein, but EEA law trumps Swiss when dealing with the rest of the EEA. Liechenstein also had to create a Market Control and Surveillance Mechanism, so neither EEA nor Swiss rules were broken outside the principality.

The Swiss Federal Customs Administration collects duties on goods entering the whole customs area. It informs Liechtenstein’s Office for the National Economy when goods are destined for Liechtenstein. Where customs tariffs are different (some EEA goods attract tariffs in Switzerland, but not Liechtenstein), duties are reimbursed. Importers are informed of their obligations, including proofs of sales in Liechtenstein.

Why it wouldn’t work for Scotland

For Scotland, this presumably means HM Revenue and Customs would continue to collect duties for the whole UK. It would then inform a Scottish public body where requirements differed and when goods were destined for Scotland. By analogy with HMRC, the Scottish body might be a beefed-up Revenue Scotland.

The UK would also have to devolve much of employment, commercial and competition law, so Scotland could implement EEA law. Alternatively, the UK might confer a general power to implement EEA rules on Holyrood. But that could cause chaos in UK-wide law.

Where the UK’s rules didn’t mirror the EEA’s, new non-tariff barriers would arise, which poses a major problem. 64% of Scotland’s exports (excluding oil and gas) go to the rest of the UK, compared to 15% going to the rest of the EU. Even ignoring the fact that much of the oil and gas also goes to the rest of the UK, it is clear who Scotland’s main trading partner is. The Scottish Government would say the model keeps UK goods standards for UK trade. But Scotland is mainly a service-based economy. In fact, Scotland trades more in services with the rest of the UK than it does in goods. The position is reversed in trade with the rest of the EU.

So given that, what happens as UK and EEA employment law start to diverge? What about financial services regulation, especially when UK financial services are so intertwined? What if EEA competition law is tougher than the UK variety – what does that mean for a UK-wide company operating in Scotland?

The problem gets worse when you remember this is Sturgeon’s proposal in the event of a hard Brexit. The further the rest of the UK pulls away from the EU, the more acute the problem becomes. In Liechtenstein’s case, Switzerland adopts most of the acquis communautaire for goods anyway, which softens the dilemma. The UK may well copy a lot of EU regulation anyway, as it discovers the irritations of diverging from its main trading partner. But to the extent that it doesn’t, Scotland will pay a price.

Above all, Liechtenstein is a small and sovereign state. Legally, presumably the UK would need to join the EEA and then restrict its territorial application to Scotland. Scotland would then need powers to take part in the EEA Joint Committee and the EEA Council, appoint a judge to the EFTA Court, select a member of the EFTA Surveillance Authority College and so on. Spanish domestic politics on their own make it clear this won’t happen. But even if the politics could be resolved, the cases are fundamentally different. Liechtenstein has about 37,000 inhabitants. It is tiny, and therefore allowed to be anomalous. Scotland, on the other hand, would have the largest EFTA population in the EEA. It would also be far more closely bound to the rest of the UK than Liechtenstein ever was to Switzerland.

Liechtenstein’s single market model is not workable for Scotland, any more than its migration quotas set a precedent for the UK. Pursuing it undermines the overriding need for a sensible UK-wide deal.

On Brexit, powers reserved should be powers shared

With the partial but crucial exception of Northern Ireland, the form of Brexit mostly needs to be settled UK-wide. But that doesn’t mean Scotland’s (or Northern Ireland’s) distinctive views should be ignored. The UK-wide settlement needs to be a compromise befitting a narrow vote and a territorial split.

In many ways, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have federal relationships with the UK. Each has a legislature of its own as well as the UK Parliament. Powers reserved to the UK Parliament are specified in law. The courts can decide if devolved legislation exceeds devolved powers. Devolved powers aren’t meant to be changed unilaterally, though what that means is obviously disputed.

One key difference with federalism is the lack of formal protection for devolution. Unless Section 28(8) of the Scotland Act 1998 is read very radically indeed, no court would actually stop the UK Parliament legislating over devolved legislatures’ heads. But another is the lack of a mature federal political culture. Federalism usually involves shared rule as well as self-rule – an idea that a state’s nations or regions have a say in government at the centre. In a state large or diverse for federalism, central government has to govern with the territorial dimension in mind.

This is why many federations have indirectly elected second chambers. It’s why federations usually require some or all constituent territories to agree some or all constitutional changes. Modern federalism requires governments to work together. But at the moment, we ‘deal’ with problems between the UK’s nations by ignoring them or offering more powers. With Brexit, working out where to handle powers no longer exercised at EU level will matter a great deal. One of the many arguments for the EEA is that it spares us the need to create a framework for a UK single market which neither undermines devolved powers nor means more non-tariff barriers within the UK.

If the SNP wants to serve Scotland’s interests, however, it needs to recognise the UK can’t just devolve itself out of this problem. Scottish Labour, meanwhile, should push hard for UK Labour to back staying in the single market. But in some ways, it’s the Scottish Conservatives who bear the biggest responsibility.

After the referendum, Ruth Davidson said she’d prefer to stay in the single market post-Brexit. She has built her success on being an uncompromising voice for the Union of 1707. No one will ask her to row back on that. But Scottish unionism shouldn’t just be about keeping Scotland in the UK, but helping Scotland shape the UK. The Scottish Conservatives have political capital. Ruth Davidson is highly respected by her UK party. She has shown Tories can make headway in Scotland. She should use it to make Brexit respect Scotland’s interests, and work better for the whole UK.

What happens otherwise?

Some of the Tory right will say Scotland wouldn’t really leave over Brexit, hard or soft. Well, it might or it might not. Brexit complicates and sharpens the choice for Scotland, and the harder the Brexit the truer that will be. Scots would need to be prepared for a decades-long, probably very painful reorientation. It would be a far more radical form of independence than Alex Salmond proffered in 2014.

But wise unionists should want to reduce Scottish discomfort within the UK, not foment it. They should also beware of assuming Scotland would never jump. A Scotland where 45% voted to leave the Union is not one where the Union is secure. It is one in which the Union has much to prove. If Theresa May really cares for its ‘precious, precious bond’, she would do well to bear that in mind.

Denial versus dread: how the Brexiters misread their neighbours

Britain’s government shows little sign of worrying what fellow EU members think of it. As a lukewarm Remainer, Theresa May kept her head below the parapet; as a born-again Leaver, she won’t be left behind by her hardliners. And so she’s placed them in (notional) charge of Brexit.

Domestically, it’s understandable. Remainers can’t agree on tactics. Leave leaders push for the most brutal Brexit possible, with plenty of support from the Tory back benches‘Liberal Leavers’ find themselves marginalised. May has no need to fear Jeremy Corbyn (whose heart isn’t in this fight anyway); for now, her greatest threats sit behind her. Whose agenda is she likely to back?

So Brexiters hope the EU-27 will simply roll over and offer Britain nearly all its preferred benefits with almost none of its perceived obligations. Mutual interest (defined in British terms) will win out, they say. They mistake the balance of power in the negotiations. They give needless offence and encourage partners to rally against us. Above all, they misunderstand the politics and psychology of the Union they want to leave.

First: ministers argue that as the UK has a trade deficit with the EU-27, the EU-27 has more interest than we do in making British trade no harder than it is now. Leave the mercantilist nonsense that trade is a zero-sum game to one side; just note that 44% of British exports go to the EU-27, while only 8% of EU-27 members’ exports go to us. Note, too, that not all EU members suffer equally from Brexit. And EU-27 trade matters more to other members (yes, including Ireland) than trade with the UK.

Second: some anger with Britain is inevitable. The EU-27 feel rejected; divorce is ugly; human nature and wounded pride conspire against easy goodwill. But because Tories are only talking to British voters and virtually ignoring the continent, we’re rubbing salt into the wounds. May’s stridently nationalist conference speech left the rest of Europe aghast. Calling free movement’s central status a ‘total myth’ and ‘bollocks’ is as offensive as it is inaccurate.

But third and above all, May makes a cardinal error in diplomacy: she assumes the rest of the EU thinks as Britain does. In the end, Britain always treats the EU as a transaction – a trade-off of sovereignty for pragmatic ends. Sure, it doesn’t just think it’s about the money (though let’s face it, it does mainly think it’s about the money). But with few exceptions, British ministers never bought into ‘Europe’ as an ideal. Cameron gloried in his refusal to do so.

It would be absurd to say other governments have no transactional interest in the EU. But it’s not the whole story. Other members believe in the European idea (or at least are invested in it) in a way Britain never really did. The original six members remember what three Franco-German wars in 70 years did to Europe. Spain, Portugal and Greece (yes – despite everything, it doesn’t want Grexit) remember military dictatorship and their journey to the EU afterwards. Eastern European countries remember the two vicious world wars and their communist past, from which they escaped only recently. A Polish foreign minister told his British audience so in no uncertain terms in 2012:

Do not underestimate our determination not to return to the politics of the 20th century. You were not occupied. Most of us on the continent were. We will do almost anything to prevent that from happening again.

This shouldn’t be so hard to understand. Britain voted to leave the EU in the face of the economics. Anti-Europeans glory in Britain’s uniqueness. Leavers complained bitterly about ‘political union’. Why, then, can they not grasp that our partners see things differently and won’t put sales of prosecco above the integrity of the European project? How can they not see that Angela Merkel – the daughter of a Lutheran pastor who grew up in atheistic East Germany, who knows the terrible German history which gave birth to the EEC and understands what recently-won freedom means – will (rightly) put the EU above exporting Volkswagens?

British people often object at this point. Why, they ask, can’t a project built for peace and democracy survive without deterring people from leaving it? Well, saying countries which participate in EU projects need to follow the relevant rules is actually pretty reasonable. The EU also legitimately fears the unstitching of the single market if every country can unpick anything it dislikes. But more importantly, the critics are confusing belief in an ideal with blind faith in human nature.

The EU stems from memories of the old Europe, of how low nations and people could sink – from fear, at least in part, of the dark heart of man. Scepticism about human (or unconstrained nation-states’) nature and idealism about the European project are inextricably linked. It’s a precious achievement built not on faith in human civility, but on the need to curb human barbarism. The EU-27 fear for the survival of their project. That obviously stems partly from its many problems. But a nervousness, a belief that something so painstakingly built could easily fall apart, is a feature of European integration – not a bug.

As populist, xenophobic authoritarianism crashes over the West, the EU-27 will fear a return to the darkness all the more. I understand their fear, because I share it. Britain deludes itself if it thinks its faith in balance sheets will come out on top.

Saving the single market

Dear Labour MPs

The referendum result is a terrible tragedy, but I understand the people have spoken. I am not asking for a second vote unless voters actually want one, which they clearly don’t now. I accept we have to try and make the best of Brexit. But we shouldn’t just let its most hardline advocates define our future. I am horrified that so many Labour MPs who campaigned to remain are saying an end to free movement of EEA nationals must now be a red line.

Most of you campaigned for Remain – so you know the EU means what it says about the single market’s four freedoms being indivisible, because you travelled the country saying so. But to reiterate: Brussels is not bluffing. The European project relies on common rules for common benefits. Conceding that principle sets a dangerous precedent for the future – throw your toys out of the pram, walk away from your neighbours and reap the rewards. It would be a tragedy of the commons on a continental scale.

Some of you talk about an ‘ambitious negotiating strategy’ to try and square the circle. Yes, other EU countries face challenges too: the threat from Marine Le Pen, Angela Merkel’s difficulties with the refugee crisis, Matteo Renzi’s upcoming constitutional referendum. But offering Britain some sweetheart deal would make their electoral troubles worse, not better. Polling clearly shows their voters do not want us to get any such deal. Some mainstream politicians have talked about greater border controls on entering the passport-free Schengen Area or even longer-term ones within it, but curtailing or ending EEA free movement rights is a distinct issue. Renzi has said an end to free movement won’t happen. Whatever changes Sarkozy puts forward for Schengen, he’s not challenging EEA nationals’ rights (and no French mainstream candidate will go further than him).

Some might point to the fact that, technically, EU free movement is on a different legal basis from the models the EFTA countries apply. The EEA countries have slightly different rules on free movement – essentially, EU citizenship is not a relevant concept and the right is (technically) free movement of workers rather than people. If Switzerland’s compromise on ‘local preference’ in hiring gets consent from Brussels (far from guaranteed), perhaps we could secure something similar to effectively stay in the single market in goods (though not in services). The Swiss model would harm a country as dependent on service exports as Britain. Either approach keeps free movement – and selling tweaks as radical changes failed dismally in the referendum. In the end, you only put off the evil day when we have to choose: do we accept the single market’s rules or not?

If Britain insists on ending free movement, therefore, we will make our way out of the single market. That will damage working people’s incomes, jobs and communities far more than immigration ever could. The evidence simply does not support the idea that immigration depresses wages overall. At worst, it may have a small effect on some low wages – though even then, it mainly seems to affect other migrants rather than British workers. Of course, if you’re on the breadline, a small change has a big effect. But the lost jobs and tax revenue (and guess whose tax credits or public services will be cut to make up for that?) from hard Brexit will dwarf any notional gain in wages.

To be clear: this is not about metropolitan liberals refusing to listen to anyone outside the M25. I understand you want to meet voters halfway on immigration. And yes, we probably have relied on low-paid labour from elsewhere too much and for too long. You can talk more about training our own people. You can ask why we don’t pay enough for British people to do more of these jobs. You can say tackling both of these could reduce immigration and slow the pace of change. You can spell out that people feel that their society changed too fast without their being asked. You can use plainer English to talk about the issue – metropolitan liberals should stop insisting that you tie yourselves in linguistic knots whenever it comes up.

But there is a difference between doing all that and staying quiet while the Tory Right sells us snake oil. It won’t appease people in the end anyway. What do you think will happen if Britain marches to hard Brexit and the country ceases to be a gateway to the world’s largest single market? Do you think angry voters will be less angry once investors go? Once Nissan leaves Sunderland? When people find themselves without work? What will Labour say to them then?

You are the Official Opposition. I realise fulfilling that role is much harder with our current leadership. But you are still the second largest bloc of MPs, and you can put pressure on a Government with a small majority in perilous times. Theresa May could well be held hostage by those Conservative MPs for whom no level of anti-European zealotry would ever be enough. Labour MPs need to press her to minimise the damage Brexit does, not encourage her to maximise it.

Yes, the referendum result mandates some form of Brexit. But all of us, not just some of the 52%, should have a say as we decide what form we choose. Please reconsider, for all our sakes.

Best wishes
Douglas Dowell

Europe after Brexit: what now?

Brexit is disastrous for the UK, but also a crisis for the EU. Some EU observers (generally firm federalists) have argued Brexit will do the EU a favour, on the basis that an obstructive UK has been an obstacle to building Europe. They are making a serious mistake – one which risks blinding them to how best to mitigate the damage done.

Britain was the second-biggest economy in the EU. It’s now the third-biggest, courtesy of the Leave vote, but it remains one of the major developed economies. It has been a powerful voice for a deeper, more complete single market. In foreign and defence policy, it plays an important role. Granted, Britain is already semi-detached in many areas and was due to become more so. But despite its Government’s worst efforts in recent years, its size and strategic assets have made it an important voice in the EC and then EU since 1973. Now it has set a deadly precedent. A member state pulling out of the EU is no longer an abstract hypothetical, but a real option. Europe’s future may well depend on getting its response right.

British citizens need to show some humility in commenting here. Britain voted to leave: quite fairly, the EU is hardly going to design itself to suit us. Of course, the Bratislava Summit also shows that ‘the EU’ includes many different actors (as ever). I write, though, as a committed European who wants to see the EU survive and prosper.

How should the EU deal with the UK?

Governments of the EU-27 should clearly put the the rest of the EU’s interests first. Britain has the right to decide to leave; it has no right to demand that others continue to go out of their way to help it, having done so. When you leave a club, you forfeit solidarity from the club. The three Brexiteers can bluster all they like; it will only harm their cause, and deservedly so. Frankly, the long-term peace, security and prosperity of Europe are more important than pandering to British exceptionalism.

That said, it isn’t in the EU’s interests to deliberately ‘punish’ the UK. A club of democracies, founded to preserve peace and freedom in Europe, shouldn’t punish a country for voting the wrong way. Further, though Britain is less important to the rest of the EU than it tends to believe, it will be the EU’s largest trading partner on exit and will remain a major player in Atlantic defence and security. A constructive and, preferably, close relationship remains in both sides’ interest.

Overall, the priorities should be: to protect the integrity and viability of the European project; to ensure EU members’ reasonable interests are protected; and to ensure continued cooperation in key areas.

No special punishment, no special deals

The EU should, therefore, neither reward nor punish the UK. Brexit needs to have clear consequences, partly on principle and partly to prevent contagion, and Britain shouldn’t be allowed to escape the fundamental tradeoffs which go with it. But if it is willing to play by the rules, the EU should be willing to play ball.

For instance: the EU should categorically refuse EEA-style single market membership without free movement of labour, the acceptance of relevant single market legislation and a budget contribution. It should, though, be willing to offer the full EEA deal to the UK and seek to persuade the EFTA members to do likewise. And where EEA countries currently join EU initiatives (such as extradition arrangements very close to those in the European Arrest Warrant), the EU should not unreasonably refuse access to a UK in the EEA if it wants it.

In the same way, if London insists on ending free movement, then the EU should be clear that the price is leaving the single market. Any interim EEA-type model should be clearly time-limited, with its endpoint in the EU’s gift and not the UK’s. But the EU-27 should also move a UK trade deal to the front of the queue in these circumstances; the UK will be the EU’s single largest trading partner, so this is in both sides’ interest. And neither side should want the transition to take longer or be messier than necessary.


The EU has one member state uniquely affected by Brexit: Ireland. Joining the EC, as it then was, allowed the UK and Ireland to meet as equal partners for the first time. The open border for people is currently possible because free movement of EU citizens (and EEA workers) applies to both; the open border for goods has been underpinned by the EU customs union, removing any requirement for customs checks and rules of origin at the border. EU membership underpins key aspects of the Belfast Agreement. And though Europe has allowed Ireland to emerge from the UK’s economic orbit, Britain remains a vital trading partner for Ireland.

The Irish Government has every reason to be appalled by Brexit. The economic damage sustained will be greater than for any other state except Britain itself. But more than that: British voters have put the open Irish border at risk. People in Northern Ireland grew up with checkpoints and police queries; now, crossing from Derry to Letterkenny is an uninterrupted bus ride. The Belfast Agreement, the end of the checkpoints, the softening of the Border and a virtual end to its day-to-day presence: all of this was key to devising a version of the United Kingdom which Northern Irish nationalists could tolerate.

The EU should do its best to protect Northern Ireland from the consequences of English and Welsh voters’ decision. Its scope will be much more limited if Britain decides not to seek single market membership in order to end free movement and, especially, if it decides to step outside a customs union with the EU. But the European project was founded to end wars: it should put a peace process above ensuring there are consequences for the UK. Legally, Ireland has a parallel opt-out from the Schengen Area and can opt into EU measures on the ‘area of freedom, security and justice’ (or not), like the UK. Ireland’s consent would be required to end this, but the wording may in some cases need to be amended to reflect Brexit. The EU should not make difficulties here where they can be avoided.

Foreign and defence policy

In foreign policy, the UK will remain a reasonably important power, though greatly diminished by its exit, and far more important to the EU than any other democratic European non-member state. Further, Brexit means the EU’s potential in foreign and defence policy is dramatically reduced.

Obviously, the UK has always insisted that these areas should stay intergovernmental. But it boasts one of the world’s best diplomatic services. It is the EU’s largest defence spender. It has a seat on the Security Council. Its international networks and connections are damaged by Brexit, but close cultural and historic ties remain. It has the second-largest development budget in the world. And so on. EU sanctions without UK involvement are clearly much less effective; and in most areas, the UK and EU will continue to share key interests and views. The EU should therefore regard the UK, along with the US, as one of its most important partners for the purposes of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) – on Ukraine, Iran, the Middle East and more besides.

Following Brexit, enhanced co-operation on defence may well be revisited in the EU. France, Germany, Belgium and others have often raised this. The UK, by contrast, has always had firm limits here, even though it kickstarted the Common Security and Defence Policy with France. There’s nothing inherently wrong with going further, so long as it remains compatible with the Atlantic alliance: the US supports more credible European defence. But the fact remains that one of Europe’s two main military powers is leaving the EU. Franco-British co-operation would probably be more formidable than the EU without Britain. If the UK shows an interest in European defence co-operation, whether on a Franco-British, multilateral or UK-EU basis, Paris and Brussels’ doors should be open.

Beyond Brexit: what should the EU do now?

Since Britain voted Leave, support for the EU has risen in other countries. Given the chaos which ensued in Britain and the evident lack of a plan on the part of its anti-Europeans, perhaps that’s unsurprising. For now, the mess in which the UK has landed itself will be a deterrent – and as the price it will pay becomes apparent, that deterrent may even grow for a few years. In the long term, though, clearly it will remain a developed liberal democracy, and ‘life after the EU’ will now be a concrete possibility.

Eurosceptics’ gifts to Europe

Obviously, the UK has been more sceptical of further integration than any other EU member state – a fact some have cited to claim the EU will gain from its departure. But other countries have often relied on the UK’s outspokenness to avoid picking fights themselves. When the UK deliberately sat on its hands during discussions about ‘political union’ in the 1980s, for instance, it rapidly became clear most other countries did not actually want to go much further than London did. I suspect we may well see other countries being louder about their own reservations in future, now they can’t rely on the UK to pick a fight first.

More importantly, UK politicians’ euroscepticism may well have helped limit the extent to which the EU has drifted from what its peoples will accept. No one who looks at the referendum on the Constitutional Treaty in France, the rise of Alternative für Deutschland, the anger in Greece, the Dutch vote on the free trade deal with Ukraine or the forthcoming Hungarian referendum on refugee quotas can see anti-EU sentiment as just a British phenomenon. But most other EU countries’ political classes have been more uniformly pro-EU than ours. Britain is an outlier. It’s also Europe’s canary down the mineshaft.

Of course, different countries have different reasons for their scepticism. Worries about migration (either from within or outside the EU) abound. The Dutch, like Britain, worry about whether other EU members follow the rules. The Spanish, Greeks and Italians resent ‘EU-imposed austerity’. The French worry about l’Europe libérale and were always unenthusiastic at best about enlargement. The Nordics, like Britain, have always been relative sceptics. Eastern Europeans only regained real sovereignty from the Soviets a quarter-century ago: they are in no hurry to hand too much of it over again, even on a democratic basis. But the fact that these reasons are so different is exactly the point. Europe’s peoples don’t agree on enough about their preferred destinations, at least for now, for the EU to just march boldly forward after Brexit.

I am a passionate pro-European. I always have been. The first vote I ever cast helped elect the first European Parliament to include eight former Communist states, thanks to the enlargement which is one of our continent’s finest achievements – a Europe whole and free. I will never dismiss how precious it is that EU members don’t even consider war with each other, and I give the EU a huge amount of the credit for that. In an ideal world, I am a European federalist. I believe in European integration, for all Europeans’ sake.

But its most important gifts are twofold: a guarantee that Europeans settle their affairs by rules and laws, not force and armies; and the entrenchment of a constitutional, democratic continent. Its institutions and powers are vital means to those ends (a basic point the British have refused to understand), but they are not ends in themselves. Without a large Eurosceptic member state as a check, the gap between Europe and its peoples could well bring the whole union crashing down. The European ideal must not be sacrificed to European federalism.

Stop, look and listen

Responding with a great leap forward in terms of powers is thus exactly what the EU should not do. European integration is not a bicycle; it won’t fall over if it doesn’t go forever forward in all circumstances. There is, clearly, a vital debate about what powers are necessary to make the eurozone function as a currency union – that was true before 23 June and it’s still true now. But beyond that, EU member states and institutions should state plainly that no major new initiatives to pool more sovereignty are expected for the currently foreseeable future.

EU institutions and governments should, instead, focus on what Europe can do within its current powers to help its citizens, and to show they actually do have some control over the EU. Jobs and economic growth are, obviously, vital here. The exact blend of completing the single market and a strong set of social standards needs to be debated: I suspect explicitly linking the two might both help Europe’s economies and reassure some of its sceptics. A stronger focus on new industries and growth areas throughout the EU, and a commitment by national governments to actually tell their voters what the EU has added, would help too. It may well be worth doing things designed to help job opportunities in Eastern Europe, expressly aiming to reduce migration flows to western Europe. These are only broad-brush points: but they suggest a direction of travel.

Finally, the EU needs to assure its citizens that there are limits to how far its borders will go. Enlargement has been one of the EU’s great successes, which the UK championed. No one should apologise for the enlargement to eastern Europe: bringing the former Communist states into a community of democratic states embodies the best of Europe’s values. The EU is a vital anchor for the security and stability of the Western Balkans – the Brussels Agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, helped enormously by their wish to join the EU, is a powerful example.

But as the UK’s referendum showed, Turkish membership of the EU is toxic with too many voters in too many countries. In reality, we know it’s not really going to happen – too many governments oppose it and Turkey is rushing headlong away from being in any way eligible to join. But while you can usually get away with meaningless promises in foreign policy, in domestic politics they frighten voters and leach public consent. Turkish accession is dead: the EU should, when it can find a geopolitically acceptable moment, tell its peoples so.

Fireproofing Europe

The first step to making the best of things is to recognise how bad they are. Britain will lose much more than the rest of Europe from its decision, but this is a body blow to the EU nonetheless. This is not good news, or insignificant. Britain’s decision has badly damaged the network of institutions on which Europe relies. It has also delivered a deadly warning, which the EU can heed – or not.

The EU should neither indulge nor punish the UK. Britain needs to accept that Brexit has consequences, choose its tradeoffs and then live with its decisions. But though it’s clear who needs whom more, the EU nonetheless has no interest in a disorderly break-up, or any more acrimony than can be helped. So while refusing to spare the UK the consequences of its choice through some sort of sweetheart deal, it should stand ready to put the EEA or a deep free trade deal on the table. And it should see the UK as a major partner for the future in the affairs of Europe as a whole.

More important is how the EU conducts itself to try and prevent future Brexits. It would be a serious mistake to respond to the crisis by pushing integration further and faster: the democratic elastic binding Europe and its nations is stretching dangerously thin as matters stand. Better to consolidate, to show what Europe can do for its peoples with the powers it already has and to address their fears.

23 June was a dark day for Britain and for Europe. Nothing will change that. It is already a (self-inflicted) tragedy for Britain’s future, role in the world and reputation. Europeans, including British Europeans, can only hope the EU does not let it become the first act in a tragedy engulfing the whole Union.

You may also be interested in my blog from June on how the UK should approach Brexit, following the referendum.

This piece was subsequently amended to highlight the fact that the EU customs union is the key challenge relating to the Irish Border.

Voting records, Labour leaderships and anti-politics

Owen Smith is standing for the Labour leadership on a platform well to the left of what anyone would have deemed possible in 2015. From standing firm against Tory spending plans, through pledging a series of specific tax rises, to investing in a British New Deal, to strengthening workers’ rights, it is very obvious which side of the fence he’s on. There’s no Blairite triangulation here – simply a clear, left-wing, domestically-focused programme.

As a result, attacks on Owen have had less to do with his policies and more to do with his background. The attacks on his career before Parliament are deeply unfair and have been rebutted elsewhere. However far to the left we move, we can’t just dismiss anyone who has worked in the private sector as inherently suspect. But many comments about his record in Parliament deserve an answer, too. They aren’t just unfair and misleading. They’re part of a toxic kind of politics, which any true idealist should shun.

Owen in Parliament (or being attacked for being an MP)

The (in)famous vote on the Welfare Bill in July has been covered over and over again, and plenty of people have explained what it meant in detail. Briefly: Labour tabled a ‘reasoned amendment’, which would have killed the Bill while giving specific reasons. It then abstained on the Second Reading because some parts of the Bill (like an increase in apprenticeships) were good. It tried to change the Bill in Committee, and then voted against it at Third Reading. The Tories have a majority, so it would have passed anyway. I completely agree we made the wrong call, and so does Owen Smith: we should have made our opposition clear. But Labour MPs weren’t just letting the welfare cuts through. It was simply trying to change it first before trying to vote it down, good bits and bad alike.

Owen has also come under fire for not voting on the Lawful Industrial Action (Minor Errors) Bill in October 2010. (For context: he entered Parliament for the first time in May 2010.) This was a Private Member’s Bill which aimed to ensure that minor procedural errors in strike ballot notices didn’t invalidate the ballot. Employers have been exploiting the law aggressively in recent years, so I have plenty of sympathy with the idea (though I might argue with bits of the detail). It’s good that a large number of MPs turned up to vote for it. But the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government had a majority of 73 and was never going to give it Government time. As a result, it was never going to actually become law. We don’t know if Owen had a constituency commitment; we don’t know what else he might have had to do at the time. We do know this wasn’t a do-or-die vote. Frankly, we know that if he had an important constituency meeting, he’d have been better employed there.

Owen’s been attacked for ‘going fishing with Tory MPs’. Yes, Owen went on a trip which involved fishing one summer. He’s Vice Chair of the All-party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Angling, raising awareness of issues relating to the sport. You might think that’s not very important, but millions of voters go fishing, and there are hundreds of APPGs covering almost everything. They all include both Labour and Tory MPs: Jeremy Corbyn used to chair the APPG on Mexico, with three Tory MPs and Ian Paisley’s son as officers. It’s hardly surprising if, as part of a group looking at angling, the Angling Trust might have been keen for these MPs to, well, experience angling. And having looked at Owen’s expense records, I can find no evidence he claimed any expenses for the trip.

And on expenses: one of the silliest attacks on Owen has been for claiming more expenses than Corbyn. Owen represents Pontypridd in the Welsh Valleys; Corbyn’s seat is a Tube journey from Parliament. Of course his expenses are higher. He has to travel further and he has to have two bases (if you don’t believe me, remember the Commons regularly finishes at 10.30pm or 7.30pm). If we compare a Welsh MP’s expenses unfavourably with those of the MP for Islington North, we may as well just say London MPs are preferred as leaders. In a country where metropolitan elites are forever mocked, I shouldn’t have to explain why that would be profoundly damaging.

Why it matters

This is dishonest, misleading stuff, easily explained for any who honestly want an answer. More importantly, it’s toxic. It takes the diary trade-offs, policy compromises and parliamentary tactics which being an MP will always involve and uses them to ‘prove’ an MP dishonest, on the take or lazy. Taken to its logical conclusion, it makes an effective legislature impossible. It’s a left-wing version of UKIP.

How do different sports’ concerns, or issues from a country far away, or information about British industries make their way to Parliament? Partly from MPs’ own backgrounds, but mainly from talking to people outside Parliament with an interest or expertise. Select Committees and APPGs are part of that process. You know how oppositions get some concessions from governments in Parliament? They work with their opposite numbers in the Lords. They put forward amendments and they may word them to get some government MPs or peers to back it. They may meet ministers to talk about what concessions they can get if the Lords lets a Bill through. And sometimes they work constructively and consensually on legislation on which no one disagrees much.

If any attempt to compromise, or negotiate, or secure concessions just proves perfidy, we have two choices. Parliament could just grind to a halt. Alternatively, the Government can ram all legislation through with no meaningful scrutiny, no chance to improve it and no opportunity for the Opposition to win concessions. Do you want either of those? Does any sensible person? Do you want a closed Parliament where MPs do nothing but casework or sitting in the chamber?

This sort of campaigning takes the basic work of MPs and actively undermines it. Worse, it depends and builds on ignorance of how Parliament works, when activists should be trying to do exactly the opposite. It’s not just attacks on Owen Smith, and it’s not just Corbynites. Those memes of an empty Commons talking about a debate on [popular/important issue] and a full one talking about [expenses/unpopular issue] – never mind that the first was a snapshot in the middle of a long debate and the second was actually Prime Minister’s Questions? They’re part of the same culture. So is the mindless counting up of how many parliamentary questions (PQs) an MP asked. Never mind their relevance or that a minister doesn’t ask PQs or an MP might chair a Select Committee and do far more for scrutiny that way. Just assume they’re lazy instead.

It’s hardly surprising democracy is held in low esteem if all the key participants and the activists mock it just as much, and with as broad a brush, as any cynical non-voter. Activists presumably believe in the power of politics, and campaigning, to effect change. If so, they should fight within Parliament, and battle for parliamentarians’ support, to their hearts’ content. But don’t feed into a culture which treats all MPs as lazy, all leaders as liars and all deals as betrayals. If you paint politics as a cesspit, don’t be surprised if the public agrees with you. And don’t be surprised if the new politics ends up nastier and narrower than the old.