Thursday, 30 March 2017

Article 50

Tuesday 29th March 2017 was a rather insignificant day in the grand scheme of things, but it marked a further milestone in the history of the United Kingdom.

As the US Secretary of State Dean Acheson put it in 1962, “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role”

In 1973 we found a role, of joining with our European neighbours, which had for too long been our enemies, to become a modern European nation and to help, and indeed lead the way, in rebuilding and reshaping Europe for the fast changing world we were witnessing.  And we did, the single market which you hear so much about was a British idea, ironically led by Margaret Thatcher who was a European, pragmatically if not culturally.

The world changed faster than we foresaw, and perhaps faster than we as human beings with complex emotions could deal with.  Certainties around our world, our homes, our jobs and our families were upended and many people struggled with the change, and struggled to see how they fitted into it.

The EEC, later the EU was often blamed for things over which it had no control.  People in my part of the country blamed the EU for the loss of trade on the docks, but it was the automation of containerisation and handling of bulk commodities which changed the workforce on the docks, indeed trade is higher now than in the so called boom years of the 1950s, albeit serviced by a workforce of 400 instead of 6000.

The EU is blamed for making cosmetic improvements, for instance funding an artwork, rather than building a new place of work.  But remember ‘what’ the funding is spent on is decided locally not by a civil servant in Brussels.  It is someone in your town hall who wanted the artwork, not a “eurocrat”.

It is very true that areas of the UK have been left behind, if a large factory closes in your town, its effects are devastating to the whole community, and whilst the EU can fund a replacement building, and train our young people in the new skills needed, it cannot bring back the quantity of jobs lost.

Of course I’m writing this from a city which has benefitted enormously from EU funding, and the voters here could see how much we gain from co-operation with our European neighbours, but equally I can see how if you are from a former industrial town which has declined, and continues to do so, no matter how many fancy new buildings and artworks have been put up, the option in the referendum to carry on as we have was hardly a tempting offer.  Who can blame them therefore for accepting the offer from the Leave side who offered them something different, even though the offer was false at worst, exaggerated at best.

The 44 years we have so far been in the EU have seen enormous advances on our continent.  Who looking forward from 1973 could have seen the fall of the Berlin Wall; the collapse of the Soviet Union; the amazingly smooth transition of former Soviet states to proud independent European nations; peace and cross-community governance,  albeit still fragile, in Northern Ireland.  And although we all, worldwide, live in uncertain and indeed dangerous times, we are much more prosperous than our parents and grandparents were, even if for some, that prosperity is unequal and unfairly distributed.

So the leaving process has begun.  The focus now falls on the teams put in place to deliver the negotiated settlement.  No longer can David Davies, Liam Fox, Boris Johnson and Theresa May smile and just say everything will be fine, or tell us how excited they are for the future.  They need to now explain how and when things will change.  What the people of the country need to do to be ready for that change.  And what will happen if the change isn’t for the better.

We cannot accept a situation where we leave the EU whatever the conditions, whatever the damage to our country, whatever the cost.  As an elected politician and as a duly appointed Prime Minister, Theresa May’s overriding duty is to protect the country.  If at the end of the two year negotiation period it is shown to her that leaving the EU is wrong for the country, then she must stop the process.  To do otherwise is to knowingly cause damage to her own nation and the electorate will be her judge.

Nine months have passed since the referendum and I have yet to hear a single reason why this country will be better off, economically, politically or culturally outside the EU.  I have heard abstract concepts about democracy and sovereignty, and of course plenty of comments about immigration, both reasoned and downright racially prejudiced.  But I have not heard anyone explain what we will be able to do in March 2019 that we cannot do now, which will make this country better.

To name four key areas:
Sovereignty – we have it, never lost it, otherwise how are we doing what we are doing now.

Immigration – the UK Government has the power to limit immigration from other EU countries – Directive 2004/38/EC of 2004 – but chooses, except in limited special cases, not to utilise it.

Democracy – the European Parliament is elected, and on a proportional basis.  I find it amusing that UKIP, unable to have a single MP* elected to Westminster, has 20 MEPs (making them the joint largest UK representative party) yet continues to accuse the EU of being undemocratic!
*Douglas Carswell being a special case in that he was already an MP.

Trade – We can and do trade with the rest of the world.  But why does Germany trade more with our commonwealth partners, India, Australia, and New Zealand than we do?  Being EU members isn’t holding Germany back, so why do we believe it does so to the UK?  We are told that the Commonwealth, quite stupidly referred to as "Empire 2.0" will ride to the rescue as if those nations have been sitting there for 44 years just waiting for our return - what nonsense. One leave voter even said Britain will be OK because "everywhere in the world loves us" conveniently ignoring who those countries celebrate their independence from.

I remain fundamentally opposed to the UK leaving the EU.  I have always agreed that the EU is not perfect and sometimes needs a kick up the backside, but that equally applies to our government whether Westminster or local town hall.

Brexit can be stopped, I believe it should, but I think it’s unlikely to be.  What happens in the future nobody knows, will there even be a United Kingdom in 10 years?  If Scotland is offered accelerated membership of the EU it may well vote to leave.  Northern Ireland is at a crossroads and if the government in Dublin play this cleverly and with more emphasis on the future than the past it may well lead to a United Ireland in my lifetime.

What will happen to the EU?  The more excitable Brexiters not only expect a breakup of the EU, they positively froth at the mouth at the very thought of it.  They are mistaken.  The history of the continent is not the same as the England’s.  Despite all the nonsense about the EU being a dictatorship, a lot of Europeans have actually lived in a dictatorship, they have seen what happens when you divide a continent and will never go back to those divisions.  The EU may well change, I expect that it will.  Perhaps to a less controlling, but more defined federal structure, a sort of United State of Europe Lite.

The world has changed, and is still changing.  I believe the superpower of the next generation will be China.  Europe will need to be strong and united to face China across the negotiation table, already Germany trades with China at 4 times greater levels than the UK.  When China wants to talk to Europe they will do so through Brussels or Berlin.  They’ll speak to London too of course, but we won’t be first on their list.

London, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast – these are modern European cities, whose citizens think of travelling, trading and working in Paris, Berlin, Madrid and Rome as no different to doing so in the their sister UK cities.  These modern British Europeans may understand but do not share their fellow citizens opposition to the EU.  And no doubt those who so fervently voted to leave cannot understand our support for it.

Mrs May speaks of wanting the United Kingdom to be fairer and more united than ever before. Unfortunately the country is far too divided for that to happen any time soon.  Whilst any discussion about Brexit is accompanied by talk of Remoaners and Quitlers, whilst both sides refuse to budge in their beliefs, whilst even the Commons chamber echoes to triumphalism and rancour, her wish will lie unfulfilled.  Both sides in this debate are convinced that they are right.  Some will quieten down over the coming weeks and months; some will never accept they are wrong; most will wait and see what happens.

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