The way forward on Brexit

Ahead of MPs casting their vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal, Hywel Ceri Jones calls on the Labour party to clearly set out their stall on the future relationship with the EU

The votes during the next days and weeks at Westminster will have a profound impact on the future of the United Kingdom.   


They will condition the future prospects and status of Wales in the UK in Europe and the wider world. They will influence the economic, social, cultural, environmental and security agendas Wales will face in the years ahead.


The political aftermath will, in particular, affect the prospects of young people and their careers whether in Wales or in the wider world.


The future of our universities as engines and hubs of innovation will be conditioned by the outcome. The labour market in Wales and our urgent need for more and new quality jobs in our already fragile economy will be shaped by these developments. And they will determine the extent to which the Welsh Government will have the capacity to eliminate the noxious cocktail of joblessness and the growing sense of social exclusion and alienation which sadly continue to afflict our country.


In the rapidly evolving and divisive political environment at Westminster, the signs are that the Prime Minister’s EU Withdrawal text will be rejected by Parliament. Equally important has been the growing concern that, despite the ambitious range of aspirations set out in it, the linked Political Declaration drawn up by the Prime Minister and European leaders will lead the country blindfold into a very uncertain future affecting all sectors of our society.


Negotiation of such an open-ended package of ambitious goals will undoubtedly be even more complex and demanding than the negotiations over the Withdrawal text over the past two years. The timetable for completion of this proposed new phase of negotiation remains uncertain.  No one will know until the end of that process, whenever that will be, the total cost of the overall partnership package which the UK will have to pay into the EU budget to implement such a large agreement.


Apart from this long list, indicating an open door to ‘wider areas of cooperation’, this Political Declaration proposes that such a ‘broad, deep, and flexible partnership between the UK and the EU should be rooted in the values that the EU and the UK share arising from their geography, history and ideals anchored in their common heritage’. This rationale is further amplified in the Declaration by the proposal for continued commitment ‘to refresh the framework of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) , while the EU and the UK will be bound by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights which reaffirms the rights resulting in particular from the ECHR’.


Both this overarching rationale and the list of EU programmes and policies in fact cover a great deal of what the UK currently enjoys from its membership of the EU. This inevitably raises the question ‘Why leave if only to remain in such an extensive partnership with it and with no seat at its decision making table?’.  Taken together, both texts are likely to be rejected by Parliament, which then has to exercise its proper responsibility to determine the next steps so as to emerge from this profoundly damaging impasse.


With this crisis exploding at Westminster, the Labour Party has a crucial responsibility and a golden opportunity to make all the difference to what happens next. No opposition party could have dreamt of being presented with such an open goal. The prospect, however, of the Tories gifting a General Election to Labour appears most unlikely, though Jeremy Corbyn is certainly justified to have been pressing this case persistently.


Whether or not the next phase is to involve a General Election or a People’s Vote, which many are now proposing, it is urgent for the Labour leadership to set out a much fuller, more convincing narrative as to its vision for the future of the UK with the EU and in the wider world. Most importantly, it is now essential for Corbyn to explain unambiguously whether his outline proposals to date imply his wish to negotiate with the EU before or after the UK exits.  The difference will, of course, be enormous.


In the meantime, as Corbyn constantly reminds us, the UK is ‘burning’, with growing levels of poverty and exclusion across the country, public services badly damaged, rising hate and racial tensions, and increasing uncertainty hitting jobs, the plans and prospects of small and larger firms, as well as our NHS and universities.


The clock has ticked and ticked. It is time for the Labour leadership to make clear its full commitment to propose the necessary extension of Article 50 so as to provide the necessary time to call another General Election or to arrange a second referendum with the option to remain in the EU. We now understand that the EU 27 are likely to agree to such an extension, provided that it is not to continue further negotiations but for the UK to hold an election or a referendum so as to confirm the definitive choice of the people of the UK as to the future they wish for.


Whether it is to be a General Election or a referendum, the Labour leadership should not delay in setting out a full and convincing narrative for the future relationship with the EU to appeal both to Labour supporters, to citizens across the UK, as well as to partner political parties across Europe. This new narrative now needs to set out clearly the reforms required both in the EU and within the UK itself.


This is the moment for the talented new Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford, to step forward to cooperate with Corbyn and his team. As the only Labour politician currently in power and leading a government in the UK, he is well placed to enrich the Labour narrative drawing on the clear positions formulated very clearly in the Welsh Government’s White Paper on Brexit.


I suggest that this narrative could include the following building blocks:


  1.  Maintain full and unfettered access to the EU’s Single Market, as a key driver for jobs throughout the EU and of the economic base from which to share the fruits of its success between Member States. In this context, seek clarification of the application of the EU rules and regulations governing State Aids and their implications for Labour plans to improve UK wide systems of transport.


  1.   Reinforce commitment to the principle of economic and social cohesion as a centerpiece of the EU strategy of development from 2021 to 2027, and transform the EU policies and funding into a massive new ‘Marshall Plan’ providing infrastructure and incentives to meet the needs of weaker regions and areas in the EU through pooling of the commitment of all Member States to shared solidarity. Re-emphasize the objectives of EU policies and funding – of the European Regional Development Fund and European social fund for instance – to generate more high quality jobs and also to attack the growing levels of poverty and exclusion across Europe. Match the EU principle of economic and social cohesion by embedding it as a parallel policy commitment within the UK to benefit the nations and regions of the UK through promotion of active regional policies to be determined on the basis of need.


  1.  Support the new initiatives to establish a stronger EU-wide social Pillar of Rights and an European Labour Authority, based on promoting social dialogue and social partnership between employers and trade unions both at the EU level and the UK. Commit to enhancing the present legal provisions and policies at EU level in relation to the rights of disabled persons and ensure these are complemented at UK level.


  1.   Support strongly the planned expansion in 2021 to 2027 of the EU’s Horizon Research and Erasmus programmes, linked with prioritising within the UK investment in research and innovation, and lifelong learning and training, especially engaging SMEs. Drive an ambitious programme of university – industry – public service cooperation to exploit the opportunities and findings emerging from the EU’s research programme especially relating to climate change and health.


  1.  Commit the UK to full implementation with the EU of the Paris Summit conclusions and targets on climate change and environmental protection, and build stronger collaboration globally to this end.


  1.  Reaffirm the principles set out in Articles 48 and 49 of the EU Treaty which provide the right for a Member State to set the terms of its own migration policy and system. Within the UK put in place a fair and balanced migration policy and system which projects the UK as an open society. Reconfirm the conditions for entry and stay within the UK for purposes such as research, study, training and youth exchanges.


  1.   Reaffirm the UK commitment to upholding the Good Friday Agreement and to further cooperation with the EU to continue and further develop the EU’s programme for Peace and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland .


  1.   Confirm the importance of continued membership and participation of the UK in the European Investment Bank and develop a further programme of cooperation with it.


These suggestions are provided to contribute to developing a more comprehensive Labour narrative which would ensure that the people of the UK understand fully the direction of Labour policies whether it is through a General Election or a second and definitive referendum which appears more and more likely and necessary. For myself, I believe the above goals can and will only be fully achieved through UK membership of the EU.


The stakes are extremely high and we are right up against the deadline.

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Hywel Ceri Jones is Former Director General of the European Commission's Directorate General for Employment, Social Policy and Industrial Relations (1993-1998), with responsibility for the European Social Fund and the EU’s Peace and Reconciliation Programme in Northern Ireland. He is also Founder of Erasmus programme and Chair of the European Policy Centre and Director of the European Network of Foundations inter alia.

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