Role play

Dianne Hayter on the likely next steps in UK/EU relations

While attention is very much focused on this week’s EU Council, Brexit negotiations should really be considered in the wider international context. The UK’s relationship with our near neighbours, trading partners and close friends lies at the heart of our defence, security, commercial and diplomatic relations with the rest of the world.

How we see ourselves, and our place in the world, should guide how the government plans to withdraw from the EU and construct our future contact and rapport with its 27-country bloc.

The UK played a key role in the creation of international institutions and conventions – from NATO and the ILO, through post-war reconstruction and support for emerging democracies, to rules-based trade and the promotion of human rights. The EU has been a major locus for these priorities. It was created to secure European peace, aligned to increasing trade, and to embedding democracy.

After we joined, we helped harness the democratic impulse in former dictatorships: Spain, Portugal, Greece, followed by those emerging from the Soviet yoke.

It is for these reasons so many of us wept on the 24 June 2016. And yet we hoped that these same impulses – for a peaceful continent, for greater fairness, for economic and democratic growth – would steer the UK’s negotiations with the EU.

How disappointed we have been. Partly because – sotto voce at first – the government planned to break free from a level playing field for trade, initially voiced as “setting our own rules”. What this actually meant was the end of something that has helped harness the competitive and entrepreneurial instinct without jeopardising worker, consumer or environmental rights and standards.

Instead, our Prime Minister wants “a free trade agreement in which the UK takes control of its own regulatory affairs and trade policy” – shorthand for a deregulated economy. All despite this undermining our trade with 500 million consumers across the 27 and having to follow US rules; and pinning his hopes on the most protectionist President and Congress to suddenly open up their markets to our exporters.

It is all about lower food, consumer, hygiene, employment and environment standards to make it easier to make some fast money. And we know who would pay for this bargain basement approach: working people; consumers; public services; future generations.

These choices are not just about Brexit, but about what sort of country we want and our role in the wider world.

Should Mr Johnson negotiate a deal, Labour will insist it is put to the people in a referendum. Voters need to hear and debate not just the divorce arrangements (the Withdrawal Agreement) but also the vision for our future relationship with the EU (the Political Declaration) and decide whether that is the right way forward. Should the Prime Minister fail to secure a deal, we will ensure he obeys the law by seeking to extend the negotiating period to allow one to be reached.

Deal or no deal, an extension will probably be necessary. A withdrawal bill to implement any deal must be completed ahead of the treaty ratification. Plus, the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act requires 21 sitting days after the treaty is laid before it can be ratified.

Labour also wants to see the reintroduced Trade Bill maintaining a crucial amendment to the earlier bill which gave Parliament a role in approving trade agreements.

Future historians might conclude that these coming days and weeks might have been instrumental in determining the UK’s economic, security, social and cultural future, with a key role in the hands of a government-led – according to The New Yorker’s Sam Knightby somebody with “a complicated relationship with the truth.”

The same author writes that “Brexit has caused an intricate, wicked crisis in British politics”. So, our challenge is enormous. To keep the public focus on the significance of choices being made in Brussels and to allow Parliament then the people to determine our European future. And to also ensure the blind belief in a US-UK trade bonanza is shown up for the nonsense it is – not only because it is unrealistic but the cost it would have for workers, consumers and the environment.

Baroness Dianne Hayter is Shadow Brexit Minister and Deputy Leader of the Labour Peers Group. She tweets @HayteratLords

Published 15th October 2019


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