By now, many might have expected to have reached the bottom of the Brexit abyss. However, the end of the European Union (EU) transitional period doesn’t mean Brexit is done. Vice-chair Nick Hopkinson considers our options for the future and concludes that the only way forward is the road back!
The hastily concluded Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), on top of the initial Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol are all fragile. Flouting the Northern Ireland protocol, or as some fear, finding an excuse to ‘tear it up’, risks undermining the TCA. Doing so will have serious implications for our trade, the Good Friday Agreement and good relations with our closest neighbours and allies. Furthermore, EU negotiations are far from complete. In particular, there is no substantial agreement yet on financial services equivalence, although agreement in some areas might be on the cards (join the Thursday 25 March London4Europe webinar with expert Graham Bishop to find out!).
A reasonable question to ask is how much of the current problems are due to teething problems, genuine mistakes, the result of hasty negotiations, and/or the inherent shortcomings of Brexit itself? The answer is of course all of these, but of course, the root cause is Brexit. We must find the best ways to mitigate Brexit’s adverse impacts and find ways to start rebuilding the closest possible relationship with the EU. We also must hold the Government to account for its broken Brexit promises, in particular to business and EU citizens.
Limits to trade
The headline trade deal may be tariff-free, quota-free trade, but this is limited to goods produced largely in the UK and largely excludes 80% of our economy, which is service-based. The quality newspapers have featured stories of the difficulties faced by the fishing industry, musicians, vintners, exporters and road hauliers, all as a result of Brexit’s fundamental restructuring of our trading relationship with the EU.
Although these sectors are clearly struggling, many others have adapted and moved on. Opposing Brexit is seen as fighting old battles. Multinational companies have relocated some operations and some small businesses are simply turning away from EU trade. Businesses are creating new supply chains and new cost structures are embedded into pricing (and our pockets!).
Businesses will be reluctant to adjust yet again, at least in the short term. Rejoiners therefore cannot for some time rely on the voice of the business mainstream to champion change. However, as we cut ourselves off from what is still the world’s largest economy and diverge from EU rules, impacts will be felt more widely, and business could become more vocal.
Many of the three million EU citizens resident in the UK have in particular been subject to considerable uncertainty. The requirement to register for settled status by the end of June 2021 is likely to be problematic in the absence of documentary proof, bureaucratic backlogs and poor access to digital tools. Many of those who need to have settled status might simply fall through the net. A Windrush II scandal looms.
So how do we get out of this mess? The Government’s 80 seat majority is seemingly insuperable. The latest polls show the Conservatives having a 13% lead over Labour, in spite of presiding over the highest pandemic death rate of any major country. The UK’s successful vaccine rollout, and the challenges faced by EU member states, has seemingly obscured the gravity of the UK’s tragedy. Any comparison between the UK’s and the EU’s rollout experiences cannot be regarded as a benefit of Brexit, but rather the result of contractual shortcomings, manufacturing challenges, preparedness of national healthcare systems, and the fact that even when the UK was subject to EU rules, individual states could still fast track vaccine approval.
Get the public behind us
If we want to build momentum for rejoining, we need to get the British public behind us. The majority of citizens wanting to rejoin the EU is in fact now less obvious than some may think. For most, our priority is to recover fully from this tragic pandemic and get the economy back on track. Then the adverse impacts of the Government’s hard Brexit will be more obvious to more voters. Thus, we should not push prematurely our end goal of rejoining. The reality is that rejoining is a longer term prospect (see my recent article in the New European). The trick is to pursue twin-track messaging: not to lose sight of the long term goal of rejoining, but to campaign on small steps to progress it (for example, campaign for pan-European visas for musicians). Step-by-step, we shall gradually build the need and momentum for rejoining.
We must also start building a broad pro-European alliance. Inter alia Lib Dems, Greens, pro-European Conservatives (let’s not forget the six million!) need to forge an alliance - with Labour in particular. Unfortunately, to date, Labour’s front bench in the Commons has appeared too timid to hold the Government to account on Brexit.
In a 19 February zoom meeting with London European Movement members, our Vice Chair, and now new Chair, Lord Andrew Adonis, recognised Labour is pivotal to winning, and that one of the European Movement’s key tasks must be to encourage the Labour front bench (and indeed other MPs) to advocate closer relations with the EU. A change could very well become more apparent as the pandemic gradually fades, but in the meantime much can be done behind the scenes. Local Labour parties can - and indeed some are - adopt motions calling for the ending of the party’s constitutional requirement to stand candidates in each Westminster constituency. Calls for proportional representation are also essential, both inside and outside Labour.
Another major opportunity for pro-Europeans are the many specialised committees envisaged under the TCA, where business and civil society can use architecture outside the highly politicised, often ideological, Westminster arena.
Of course, there is much we can do to build the European Movement. Under our new Chair and new Chief Executive, Anna Bird, efforts are underway to professionalise and grow the movement with exciting new offers for our more than 11,000+ members. For example, if you haven’t already done so, members (and non-members) can sign up for the European Movement’s 27 March virtual national conference. Whether or not you join us on 27 March, do ask a friend, colleague or family member to join the European Movement, to strengthen our movement and country.
These are but some of the many things we can do to reverse the historic mistake of Brexit. This time it is we who have the advantage of time.
The only way forward is the road back!
Vice Chair, London4Europe
London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.