Put the Brexit terms to the people

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(Published by the Western Mail, 30 June)

The Viking Museum at Roskilde in Denmark has the remains of a longboat built near Dublin in 1042 by Scandinavian boatbuilders as a warship. It’s a reminder, if you like, that links across our continent, forged in war but also by trade, have centuries-old roots that pre-date the era of modern capitalism.

But modern-day Ireland and Denmark may also have pointers for us following last Thursday’s referendum vote for Brexit. For both these countries have had to go back to their electorates more than once to seek endorsement of their relationship with the European Union

The shock of last Thursday’s vote has yet to wear off. The pound has fallen, some banking and other shares have been temporarily suspended, and there is a leadership vacuum in both main parties at Westminster. In Scotland, action is underway to prepare the ground for a second independence referendum, and there is talk of an attempt, unlikely to succeed, to block Brexit. The possibility of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic crystallises the impact of Brexit on the Good Friday agreement. In Wales, Carwyn Jones has called for the final Brexit proposals to be put before Parliament and all the devolved institutions.

In Brussels and Luxembourg, British officials who work for EU institutions are wondering what their legal employment future will be. Beyond the political class, there has been a Great Petition for a second referendum. Meanwhile expats, retired or working in EU member states, don’t know what the future holds. And here at home we have seen an appalling increase in racially-motivated hate crimes, with racists clearly feeling licensed to parade their prejudices in public.

Even now, we don’t know what Brexit means. EU leaders are saying there will be no discussions until the UK triggers article 50. The Leave side still sounds – to be charitable – vague and uncertain as to what it wants. Sooner or later, many of those who voted Leave will find that those things they thought Leave would deliver – more money for the NHS, an end to immigration full stop, access to the single market without EU rules – will never be realised. That will be the inheritance for the next Conservative Prime Minister.

The likelihood is that there will be a general election in the near future, after the Conservative leadership election. Never mind the Fixed Term Parliament Act – no Opposition Party can vote against the calling of a General Election for fear of looking ‘frit’.

So what should Labour say on Europe in that election? I believe it should state, unequivocally, that it will put the final terms of Brexit to the people. That will mean a second referendum. But not a re-run of last week’s vote, which is essentially what the Great Petition demands. Instead, it would be a vote on whether the Brexit terms are better than the status quo of current membership. That’s a real choice, a meaningful choice, free of the mendacious populist distortions of the Leave campaign in the recent campaign. It will be a concrete set of proposals, and people will have to decide whether that is better than what we have at present. It would force the parties to engage with the detail. It would force the media, including the BBC, to interrogate the real choice on offer. It will make it clear that there are no easy solutions to the problems which face us, and which provoked last week’s populist revolt against the elites.

It’s an honest position, and it’s a definitive position. If the people endorse the negotiated Brexit position, then we are out. If they don’t, then that is an absolute recognition that the terms of departure are worse than what we have now. It’s a better choice than Cameron’s folly, which was a vote based on a marginal set of changes that were too obscure to be meaningful to most. It will be a vote on a real understanding of what ‘Leave’ means.

There are precedents, of course, and this is where Ireland and Denmark come in. In Denmark, two referendums were held before the treaty of Maastricht passed. Just before the Danish football team headed to victory in the 1992 Euros, Danish voters rejected Maastricht by a small majority. Denmark then negotiated four opt-outs from portions of the treaty, including European Monetary Union, Justice and Home Affairs and Common Defence. The second referendum in 1993 approved the treaty with the opt-outs.

In 2001 Ireland rejected the Treaty of Nice. After clear statements that Ireland would not have to join a common defence policy and affirming the right of Irish parliamentarians to decide on enhanced cooperation, a second referendum the following year approved the Treaty.

In 2005, France and the Netherlands rejected the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, ending the ratification process of that Treaty, ultimately replaced by the Treaty of Lisbon. Ireland called a referendum on that in 2008 – and again their voters rejected it the first time around. After that the Council of Ministers agreed a statement that other member states would not use the Treaty to reduce the number of permanent commissioners in favour of a rotating system with fewer commissioners, nor threaten Ireland’s military neutrality and rules on abortion. Following that, Ireland voted in favour of the treaty in 2009.

Other political leaders in other member states over time have handled things better than David Cameron. There may be no way back from Brexit. But shouldn’t the people be given a real choice on the actual outcome, not the dishonest promises and unfulfilled – and unfulfillable – fantasies of the Leave campaign? David Cameron and the Tories abrogated leadership over the last six months. They opened the door to populism and lies about what Leave would mean. Labour must now provide that leadership. A clear promise to put the Brexit negotiation to the people could unite the party and win new support for Labour at the general election.

 

Wales and Europe

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(Published by the Irish Times, Saturday 25 June)

For two weeks Wales has been celebrating its European presence. There was jubilation when our football team thrashed Russia to top UEFA group B, storming past England. Eyes are now firmly focused on today’s match in Paris against Northern Ireland. No-one in Wales wants an early European exit from the football. But political Europe is now another matter altogether.

After Wales voted ‘no’ to an Assembly in 1979, one commentator recalled seeing anguished devolutionists shouting at the television for giving them the wrong result. Many similar sightings were reported on Friday morning as the people of Wales rejected the advice of the two political parties that dominate the National Assembly, Labour and  Plaid Cymru, and joined England in voting to leave the European Union. Some have argued in recent weeks that Brexit was a phenomenon of English nationalism. The Welsh vote demonstrates that it’s more complicated than that.

On Friday morning, the First Minister said that he was ‘deeply disappointed’ with the referendum result – and said that he had never been convinced of the need for the referendum. He set out six objectives for his government in response to the referendum result – the protection of jobs, full participation in discussions on the timing and terms of withdrawal from the EU, maintained access to the Single Market, continued participation in CAP and Structural Funds up until 2020, a re-negotiation of the funding formula for Wales taking account of the loss of EU funding following withdrawal and a re-drawing of the constitutional settlement in the UK.

Throughout the campaign, activists for Remain have stressed the benefits that Wales gets from Europe. Independent analysis by Cardiff University’s respected Wales Governance Centre showed that Wales is a net beneficiary of the European Union: in 2014 the net benefit to Wales of being in the EU was £245 million, or £79 per person.  Over £2 billion euros for farming and the countryside has been destined for Wales in the 2014-2020 period, and a further £2 billion plus in cohesion funding for the poorest areas of the country – paradoxically some of the areas which voted most heavily to Leave. Business in Wales, as in the UK overall, including companies like Airbus and Toyota, has been firmly in support of the Remain campaign. Analysts will be totting up the impact of the vote on Welsh exports – not least Welsh lamb, beef and dairy products- to Ireland and other parts of Europe.

The two most popular Welsh politicians have campaigned together on the Remain side: Labour’s First Minister has shared platforms with the Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly, Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood. The Conservatives in Wales have been as divided as their colleagues in Westminster, with the Secretary of State Alun Cairns MP backing his leader David Cameron but the Tory leader in the National Assembly, Andrew R.T.Davies, despite his own farming business benefitting from EU subsidies,  campaigning for Brexit.

In some areas, such as the Rhondda, traditional Labour-Plaid rivalries were set aside as the two parties campaigned together. But it was not enough: Rhondda Cynon Taff voted to leave, like other valley communities such as Merthyr, Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly, Neath Port Talbot and Torfaen. Perhaps this was unsurprising: the academics who have specialised in analysing the rise of UKIP, Professors Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford, identified the Rhondda and Blaenau Gwent as the two Labour seats most likely to be sympathetic to UKIP in an analysis they published in 2014. Their rationale was that these were precisely the kind of post-industrial areas – former mining or steel-producing areas which had lost jobs to globalisation – white working class areas which have lots of ‘left behind’ voters who were the most receptive to UKIP and its policies. These areas have suffered the impact of austerity policies over the last six years – and it has been Labour councils which have had to implement the cuts imposed by Westminster. Paradoxically in May’s Assembly election it was Plaid Cymru which hoovered up the protest vote in both seats, winning the Rhondda and coming close in Blaenau Gwent. But valleys voters have shown they are quite capable of expressing a political protest by voting Plaid Cymru in an Assembly election while plumping for a ‘Leave’ vote in the EU referendum. UKIP has done well in European elections in Wales over the last decade and won its first seats in the National Assembly last month.

One issue dominated Welsh politics in the first six months of this year – the crisis in the steel industry. UKIP and the Brexiteers took the line that steel could not be saved in an EU which blocked necessary state support and tariffs on cheap Chinese steel. The First Minister and others have pointed out that other EU member states have been able to take action to protect their steel industries.

Meanwhile, the word sovereignty has been heard on the doorsteps, expressed as a desire for ‘regaining control’, in the language of the Leave campaign. However, the biggest driver of the Brexit message was immigration, in Wales as in England. This wasn’t just an issue in the urban areas of Wales with the most recent experience of immigration – the issue surfaced just as often in valley areas where post-war immigration had been minimal. Immigration was a proxy for a variety of other fears – about pressures on public services and the alleged under-cutting of wages, about the insecurities of change driven by globalisation – and was ruthlessly exploited by the Leave campaign who said that immigration levels could not be controlled within the EU.

Over the last fortnight, more experienced Remain campaigners, like Peter Hain and Eluned Morgan, had been very nervous about the outcome, but early on Thursday evening Hain said he was hopeful that things were swinging back to Remain. Postal votes went out early in this campaign and Peter and others – like Chris Bryant MP -had stories of people who had voted by post to Leave but regretted it and to compensate were now seeking to persuade others to vote for Remain. It wasn’t to be. Welsh Remain campaigners believe that above all, this has been an anti-establishment vote – a populist revolt against the political elites, almost a vote against politics itself. The referendum has certainly exposed a serious division between the leadership of the National Assembly – both the Welsh Labour Government and Plaid Cymru as the official opposition – and the majority of those voting in the referendum. In March, the First Minister warned of a UK constitutional crisis if England voted ‘Leave’ and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted ‘Remain’, and Plaid Cymru’s leader had argued that Brexit should only occur if all four parts of the UK voted to Leave , assuming that without such a lock, England might drag Wales out of Europe. Instead, Wales has voted to leave in its own right. Looking across the nation, beyond the valleys, Pembrokeshire, Anglesey, Powys and Wrexham and the north-east of Wales voted to leave, not unexpectedly. Against expectations, Bridgend, Swansea and Carmarthenshire voted to leave. Cardiff, along with Monmouth, the Vale of Glamorgan, Gwynedd and Ceredigion, voted for Remain.

So Wales joins England in voting to leave while Scotland and Northern Ireland vote to remain. A couple of years after that 1979 referendum when Wales voted against having a National Assembly, the historian, the late Gwyn Alf Williams, wrote that ‘We Welsh look like being the last of the British. There is some logic in this. We were, after all, the First.’ Williams meant then that Wales had opted for the status quo of the unreformed British state. This week, Wales’s British identity asserted itself over its European identity, even as the nation’s football team was striding out on the European stage. No-one knows what comes next.The worst of Brexit is that we almost certainly haven’t seen the worst of it yet.