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The way forward on Brexit

Hywel Ceri Jones

Date: 22/01/2019

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 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. The future of our universities as engines and hubs of innovation will depend on 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. They will also 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.

Last week, the PM’s EU Withdrawal text was firmly 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 PM and the EU 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 the 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 an agreement.

Apart from this long list, indicating an open door to ‘wider areas of cooperation’, the 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 their geography, history and ideals anchored in their common heritage’. This rationale is further amplified by the proposal for continued commitment 'to refresh the framework of the 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 cover a great deal of what the UK currently enjoys as a member of the EU. This inevitably raises the question ‘Why leave if only to remain in such an extensive partnership and with no seat at the decision-making table?’

With this crisis exploding at Westminster, the Labour Party has a crucial responsibility and a golden opportunity to make all the difference in what happens next.

Whether or not the next phase involves a general election or a Peoples’ Vote, which many are now proposing, it is urgent for the Labour leadership to set out a much fuller, more convincing narrative on 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 current outline proposal implies 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, badly damaged public services, 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 been ticking away. It is time for the Labour leadership to make clear its full commitment to propose the necessary extension of Article 50 to provide the time needed to call another general election or to arrange a second referendum with the option to remain in the EU. We now understand that the EU27 are likely to agree to such an extension, provided that it is not to continue further negotiations and that the UK will hold an election or a referendum to confirm the final decision of the people of the UK as to what future they want.

The Labour leadership should not delay in setting out a full and convincing narrative on the future relationship with the EU that appeals both to Labour supporters and to citizens across the UK, as well as to partner political parties across Europe. This new narrative now needs to clearly state the reforms required both in the EU and within the UK itself.

This is the moment for the talented new Welsh PM, 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 positions formulated in the Welsh Government’s White Paper on Brexit.

8-point plan for Labour

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 as the economic base from which to share the fruits of success between member states. In this context, seek clarification of the application of the EU rules and regulations governing state aid and their implications for Labour's plans to improve the UK transport system.
  2. Reinforce the commitment to the principle of economic and social cohesion as a centrepiece of the EU strategy of development from 2021 to 2027. 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 the pooling of the commitments of all member states into shared solidarity. Re-emphasise the objectives of EU policies and funding – ERDF/ESF etc. – 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 the promotion of active regional policies to be determined by need.
  3. Support the new initiatives to establish a stronger EU-wide Pillar of Social Rights and a European Labour Authority, based on promoting social dialogue and social partnership between employers and trade unions both at the EU and UK levels. Commit to enhancing the present legal provisions and policies at EU level with regards to the rights of the disabled and ensure these are complemented at UK level.
  4. Strongly support the planned expansion of the EU’s Horizon Research and Erasmus programmes in 2021-2027, linked to the prioritising within UK investment in research and innovation, lifelong learning and training, and 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 those relating to climate change and health.
  5. Commit the UK to the full implementation of the Paris summit conclusions and targets on climate change and environmental protection, and build stronger collaboration globally to this end.
  6. 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 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.
  7. Reaffirm the UK's commitment to uphold 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.
  8. Confirm the importance of continued membership and participation of the UK in the European Investment Bank and develop a further programme of cooperation.

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.

This piece was first published on The Federal Trust. Slight edits were made to reflect the EPC publication guidelines.

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