This article first appeared in the 15th January 2019 edition of the Western Mail
Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of Wales for Europe and author of Unfinished Business: Journal of an Embattled European.
Later today our 650 MPs will shuffle through one of two lobbies in the House of Commons to decide the fate of the deal that the UK Government has agreed with the European Union. It is impossible to exaggerate the significance of the occasion. They can, they should and they will vote it down.
Comparisons are being drawn with the Commons vote that brought Churchill to power in May 1940, and with the historic debate on the abolition of the Corn Laws in the 1850s that ushered in an era of free trade.
It is a moment when our representatives must exercise their own considered judgements, rather than mere obedience to whips, must put the nation ahead of party, common sense ahead of ideology, and realism about the structure, strains and perils of our world today ahead of wild fantasies based on an imagined past.
The deal Mrs May offers is friendless for many reasons that stand in opposition to her flimsy arguments in favour of it. Writing in the Sunday Express, she claims the deal delivers certainty when it patently doesn’t. Last month our erstwhile Permanent Representative to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers – who should know – described the 27-page Political Declaration thus:
“It is vague to the point of vacuity in many places, strewn with adjectives and studiously ambiguous in a way that enables it to be sold as offering something to all, without committing anyone fully to anything.’
We are being asked to abandon a broad, deep and intricate economic and political alliance of more than 45 years standing for a flickering hologram of a deal.
Mrs. May claims the deal ‘delivers for the whole country’ when it involves abandoning EU mechanisms that have delivered the most generous regional assistance Wales has ever seen, in favour of a ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’ of indeterminate size and effect and in the control of a UK Government whose instincts are incorrigibly centralist.
She says that it offers an ‘unprecedented economic relationship with our European neighbours, protecting British jobs’ – except that it doesn’t.
Just ask the makers of cars and aeroplanes, in which Wales has such a stake. Ask Jaguar Land Rover, Ford, Vauxhall, Toyota. Ask Airbus. Ask our universities, leaders in European research. Ask our farmers. Ask those in the service industries that represent 80 per cent of our economy, but which don’t feature in the deal at all.
We are promised a deal on manufactured goods, in which we have a trade deficit with the EU, but nothing on services in which we have a trade surplus. And why is that? Because the service industries involve much more freedom of movement, the ending of which was Mrs May’s short-sighted priority.
By some strange irony, while she was entertaining the Prime Minister of Japan last week and talking up the prospects of a deal with Japan, she neglected to mention that last month, after four years of negotiation, the EU concluded a comprehensive trade deal with Japan that removes duties worth £1 billion annually on EU exports to Japan as well as opening new opportunities in service sectors.
There again, Mrs. May says we will be ‘taking back control of our laws by ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice’. Yes, we will have a notional autonomy – but only notional. If we wish to continue to trade with our largest market we will still have to observe EU regulations that we will now have no power to determine.
I had to struggle to the very last lines of Mrs May’ sales pitch to find one sentence I could agree with. It read: “It is time to forget the games and do what is right for our country”. Amen to that.
But what is right for the country? There are no better or more coherent answers that can be found in last weekend’s address by Caroline Lucas, the Green Party’s first MP, to a convention in support of a new referendum. It is one of the most thoughtful addresses on the European issue that I have read. (full text at www.opendemocracy.net).
Unlike Mrs May, Caroline Lucas found words that kindle hope, that seek to unify and that scotch any notion that seeking a new referendum would, in Mrs May’s own words, be ‘a catastrophic and unforgivable breach of trust’.
Significantly, much of her moving address was aimed at those who voted Leave: “I want to say a genuine thank you to the 17.4 million people who gave the establishment such a well-deserved kicking in 2016. Thanks to you, the crisis at the heart of our democracy – and the intolerable levels of inequality and insecurity experienced by so many – can no longer be ignored.
“Many people took the question they were being asked to mean ‘Should the country go on being run in the way that it is?’ And they voted ‘NO!’ with a collective howl of rage. That response was justified then – and it’s justified now.”
In consequence, she set out the case for a radical rejection of the status quo, for Remain AND reform in the UK and in the EU. In the UK, she said, Brexit had ‘laid bare the extent to which our governance structures are derelict’. And surely no one who has witnessed Parliament in the last year can gainsay that.
“This is a country where your success is dictated by your postcode, the income of your parents, the year in which you were born. It’s a country of dead-end streets for those with the least, and open highways for those with the most.” Instead, she made a powerful case for a new social contract: better jobs, high-quality public services, investment in the green economy, people of all backgrounds and communities treated with respect, and given the opportunity and the power to thrive. She also placed much emphasis on the need to reduce Britain’s inter-regional inequalities.
But, she said, ‘the lie at the heart of the Leave campaign was that this downward spiral could be reversed by leaving the EU.’
Neither did the EU escape her attention. Arguing that we should not be afraid to advocate changing the EU, she called for a Constitutional Assembly to propose changes to democratise the EU – strengthening the role of European Parliament at the same time respecting national self-determination. She also insisted that the EU dismantle the habitual domination of corporate power over the will of citizens.
In many ways the changes she called for constitute a familiar progressive agenda, that could easily be shared with other parties on the left, including Plaid Cymru and the SNP and, not least, the Labour Party. But what the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, seems unable to echo – an inability that is in danger of becoming an ineradicable stain – is any of the warmth shown by other parties towards the underlying concept of the European Union: in Caroline Lucas’s own words, ‘the greatest international venture for peace, prosperity and freedom in history.’
It is to steer us back to towards solidarity with Europe – a solidarity that is in everyone’s interest – and, in the process, to rekindle the hope of rebuilding our own society that MPs must vote tonight.