On 26 June 2017, European Movement National Chairman and former Cabinet Minister Stephen Dorrell, addressed a packed meeting of more than 120 convened by London4Europe, the London section of the European Movement. He spoke with urgency and commitment. Michael Romberg reports.
The venue had previously been Conservative Central Office. It had been the base of Ted Heath and of Margaret Thatcher, the leading architect of the single market. Thatcher had recognised the need for majority voting and a single enforcement process under the European Court of Justice if the gains from that project were going to come through.
Remain was the Mainstream View until a Year ago
The European Union (EU) had continued to develop and, until a year ago, Conservative policy had been to make the case for Britain’s role in the EU. Indeed all living past Prime Ministers continued to support EU membership. John Major had wanted Britain to be “at the heart of Europe”; now he calls Brexit “an historic mistake”.
Today that mainstream view is barely represented in Parliament and public debate. It is the role of the European Movement (EM) to put it across. Stephen Dorrell continued to believe that EU membership was in Britain’s best interest. He was not interested in just softening the terms of Brexit.
The Origins of the EM and the EU
The EM had been founded 10 years before the Treaty of Rome. It was not a new specifically anti-Brexit movement. Rather it had been launched in the 1940s as people tried to bring the nations of Europe closer together in order to avoid a repeat of the disasters of the first half of the 20th century. Although the foundation instruments had been economic co-operation, the EU was an essentially political project with economics being instrumental to that end.
At the same time the EU was being developed, the USA was putting in place the foundations of the rules-based international order. President Trump was now dismantling that. It was a shame that the UK was not part of the defence of liberal values, abdicating that role to Germany.
The EU had always been outward looking: it is false to claim that there was a choice between Europe and the Rest of the World – we can engage with both.
The EU is changing again. The election of President Macron will give a new dynamism. Stephen Dorrell hoped the UK would be part of that debate, not to stand aloof. Indeed it was not going to be possible ever to “solve” the question of the UK’s relationship with our European neighbours. It would evolve. Whatever happens, the real issue is what our relationship with our European neighbours should be.
The 2016 Referendum did not Settle the Question
Free citizens may change their minds. Democracy is not an event. It is a process.
Moreover, the 2016 referendum did not create a mandate for any specific aspect of Brexit. Nor did the General Election where the two major parties offered widely disparate versions of Brexit, neither of which commanded a majority of either votes or seats.
Essentially, the Brexit process was a rethinking of the UK’s relationship with our European neighbours and with the rest of the world. As a Conservative, Stephen Dorrell saw the burden of proof resting on those who wished to change the relationship.
The Role of Parliament
- The new Parliamentary arithmetic has given Parliament a great opportunity to hold the Government to account.
- It was wrong for MPs to say “I am against Brexit but the 2016 referendum means that we have to make the best of it.”
- Parliament should ask itself about every proposal: “How does this serve the national interest?”
A Referendum on the Terms
Parliament should scrutinise the Brexit process and reach a view on the final deal. Then there needs to be a referendum, whether Parliament recommends rejection or acceptance of the deal.
Given that we have had the 2016 referendum, the question cannot be left to Parliament alone. The people must decide.
He and other prominent figures in the European Movement were in discussions with MPs and peers. But it was necessary to create grass roots pressure on them. Even for Leave MPs it was worth getting them to explain every part of the Leave platform. For example, why it was in Britain’s national interest for the European Pharmaceuticals regulator to leave London and for future European regulation to be determined without UK input?
How to Win over Leave Supporters
Stephen Dorrell argued that it was not enough to say “I am against Brexit”. Indeed, it was better not to start by talking about Brexit or Remain. We had to address the relationship with our European neighbours issue by issue.
For example, we should explain why it was better to pursue environmental objectives at the EU level – pollution knows no borders. We should set out the benefits of freedom of movement, not only for those who have moved, but also for those who might aspire to move in the future. And explain that immigration brings not only labour but also ideas, new ways of working, challenges to existing orthodoxy.
Similarly, the argument for the advantages of the single market had to be made on its merits, and the need for a particular relationship with European nations derived from that.
Television and the new digital media enabled the politically active to talk directly to voters more than in the past. We should make full use of these opportunities to communicate our message.
He did not think that emphasising the role of the EU in safeguarding the existence of rights was likely to work well in the UK. On the continent, with written constitutions, people looked to the judiciary to protect rights. In the UK people looked to Parliament. So it was better to focus on the justification for Europe-wide collective action, for example to prevent undercutting on labour standards.
Brexit is a mammoth undertaking and it has not started well. It is inappropriate to call for people to ‘rally round’ and support ministers.
There is no deal the government can get that will deliver more for the UK than full EU membership. Our job is to make that argument, build a movement to amplify it, and make sure everyone knows that there is still a way to stay in the EU. This is not just for us, but for future generations who deserve the same opportunities that the EU affords all of us today.
- This report of the speech was prepared by Michael Romberg and represents his personal interpretation. You can read more from Michael on his Facebook page: Campaign for the Real Referendum – on the Terms of Brexit.
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