Forward or Backward Steps for the UK?

by Dr Hywel Ceri Jones

11th February 2019

This article first appeared on Click on Wales.

About the Author
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.

There is some common ground between Corbyn’s latest intervention and the Prime Minister’s proposed Political Declaration. This latter text sets out the UK government’s aspirations for “a deep and special partnership agreement” with the EU. Whilst recognising the big difference in that Corbyn now proposes full engagement of the UK in the EU’s Customs Union and close alignment with its Single Market, both texts, share common weaknesses.

Firstly, they both present ambitious wish lists of aspirations. Both are completely uncosted, in respect of the individual component priority areas they propose, as well as with no indication of the total cost implications of either partnership package which would then have to be paid by the UK into the EU budget, if eventually either package were to be successfully negotiated with the EU and then approved at Westminster. Given the ambitious aspirations in both texts, there is little doubt that the cost contribution would be very considerable.

Secondly, given the range and substance of what is proposed in both texts, most of which will undoubtedly be denounced immediately by Brexiteers, the time -frame to negotiate either ambitious package is unpredictable and most likely to stretch over more than a further two year period. The problematic experience over the past two years of negotiating a limited withdrawal agreement by a divided and weak Government team has already clearly revealed the complexity and difficulties in such negotiations. Both these texts present blindfold post Brexit scenarios with the grave disadvantage of leaving the UK and the EU in a state of continuing lack of clarity and certainty as to the final outcomes on the future relationship. They certainly do not provide a recipe for “moving on”!

Thirdly, both the text of the Prime Minister’s Political Declaration and the Corbyn counter-proposal read much more like a submission to the EU from a candidate country wishing to secure the status of an “almost” member of the EU, with some (but not the same) opt-outs remaining, most notably, but not only, in respect of the euro. Most critically, both sets of proposals for the future would mean that the UK would in effect be both IN and OUT of the EU at the same time. IN to secure many of the benefits of the EU and to participate in EU programmes and agencies, thus also agreeing to observe the resultant obligations to the EU, but OUT of any direct participation in EU decision-making processes.

This approach would mean that the UK authorities, the devolved governments and the wide range of representative bodies from the UK would not be in a position to approve the rules, present and future, governing those very policies and programmes of the EU (eg Horizon 2020 and Erasmus etc ) which the PM and Corbyn recommend should be continued with UK participation in the best interest of the UK. Clearly too, this would mean that the UK would have no direct voice in shaping the EU strategy of development (2021 to 2027), in particular the EU’s growing number of partnership agreements and collaborative relations established with other blocks in the world (most recently signed with Japan).

It seems highly improbable that the PM can or will be prepared to accept to integrate Corbyn’s five demands into her negotiations for a revised agreement and secure the assent of Parliament. If she were to do so, the result could well blow the Tory party apart. We are likely to witness an explosion of public bewilderment and concern amidst growing criticism of the quality of our parliamentary democracy.

Corbyn’s long-awaited intervention falls far short of the spirit and terms of the Labour Party conference decisions and the firm expectations of a large number of Labour supporters. Repeating ad infinitum that he wishes “to keep all options open” is almost as tiresome as the PM’s pathetic “Brexit means Brexit”. Reluctant and hesitant, Corbyn decided to make no explicit reference in his latest letter sent to the PM and to Labour members to include the option to remain in the EU in a public vote. He will not be easily forgiven for his unconstructive ambiguity or his impact on the positioning of Labour at this critical time.

A third and final referendum (1975, 2016 and 2019) would now give the people of the UK the opportunity to weigh up the balance of advantages and disadvantages which they now consider should define their preferred vision of the future development of the UK. This would be a legitimate expression of our democratic rights as citizens, following two and a half years of uncompleted and unsuccessful negotiations by the PM leaving us in such a mess and profound uncertainty about our future. At least now we all have had every chance to be fully informed as to what is at stake.

Despite my reservations about referenda and my strong preference for responsible parliamentary democracy, I believe there is now no other way to emerge from the current impasse than by Parliament agreeing to hold a People’s Vote which offers the choice of either confirming the PM‘s proposed formula or the option to remain as a full and active member of the EU . Although the conduct of a third referendum may well prove divisive, it cannot be much more divisive than the situation we are now in. Widespread public bewilderment and frustration everywhere currently evident is a very negative basis on which to build the open, tolerant and creative society we need for the twenty-first century. My deepest concern is to ensure that the young people of the UK have their rightful democratic chance to express their choice of the future they wish for themselves and for the UK in Europe and the world.