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Battle lines over Brexit are becoming clearer

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Geraint Talfan Davies

Perhaps we should learn to fear August. It’s a bad month. The Houston floods and North Korea’s missile over Japan are merely this year’s contribution to a catalogue of August events that include the start of the first world war, the first and second military use of atomic bombs, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the beginning of the Berlin Wall – not to mention the deaths of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Princess Diana. Still, it’s almost over. 

Against this cataclysmic historical backdrop the Labour Party’s new commitment to continued membership of the EU’s single market and customs union might seem small beer. After all it would be easy to knock it: too little, too late, hardly epoch-making; no certainty past a transition period; the suspicion of a tactical move rather than deep-seated conviction. 

And yet, and yet, it is movement. And one that strangely mirrors that of its opponents. Just as a riven UK Government has shuffled towards recognising the need for a transition period, and has even tipped its hat to the European Court of Justice, the Labour Party has now hung its hat firmly on the peg of the single market and customs union.

In both parties the direction, though not the distance of travel, is the same.

The increased distance between the two main parties, and the welcome sense of battle more clearly joined, makes it easy to miss the fact that in both parties the direction, though not the distance of travel, is the same. Both are bowing to the realities.

But having breathed a sigh of relief, we then have to hold our next breath. For though Labour has moved further than the government, one does not yet know how fully Messrs Corbyn and Macdonnell have suppressed, and will continue to suppress, their long-standing personal hostility towards Europe. They are not a duo who are likely to proclaim anything more than the  transactional benefits of a European union.

For the moment, let’s give credit where it is due. For months Keir Starmer, the Shadow spokesman on Europe, has seemed a tortured soul. His discomfort has been palpable. He has faced the painful necessity of having to rein in his own party leaders before fixing his sights on the opposition. But he has succeeded, maybe partially, but to an important degree.

The main UK opposition party has now put clear water between itself and a government hemmed in by its own disunity and downright fear of the Europhobe extremists in its Cabinet and on its backbenches.

No-one will be more relieved at Labour’s shift than the Welsh Government. Too often, even when on the same stage, Carwyn Jones and Jeremy Corbyn have rarely given the impression of being on the same page. This has been an embarrassment for Labour at both ends of the M4, although more keenly felt at this end.

We now have a situation where Labour, SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party are all firmly in favour of our continued membership of the single market. There is now no reason for them not to collaborate closely in the debates and votes on the EU Withdrawal Bill in order to fend off any notion of a hard Brexit that would do untold damage to the economy, not least in Wales where we are in no position to take more hits.

There is now a better chance of engineering some rebellion from amongst the 176 current Tory MPs who voted Remain.

There will be a lot to fight for this autumn and through 2018. Where this country will end up may depend on the tactical astuteness of the Labour leadership as well as the speed with which three different but parallel narratives unfold.

  • First, there is the passage of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, and other Brexit-related legislation, during which there is now a better chance of engineering some rebellion from amongst the 176 current Tory MPs who voted Remain.

Astute tactical judgment will still be required to stave off the harder options, to ensure that Parliament not the executive remains in control of any post-Brexit legislative process, and to prevent the rolling back of devolution through the reassertion of an outdated English centralism.

  • Second, there is the progress of the negotiations, where it is impossible to predict what degree of compromise or implacability will be permitted by 27 countries anxious to preserve a union whose continuation is vital to their interests (just as it is to ours, whether we are in or out).
  • Third, there are the unfolding economic consequences of the referendum decision – not least, the impact on the pound, by now indelibly imprinted on the credit card bills of every British holidaymaker in Europe. We are all, already, poorer.

Might we see stalemate in either the British Parliament or in the Brussels talks, or both? Could another general election intervene?

And what of the economic consequences? Even most rabid leavers accept that things are likely to get worse for Britain before they get better. But will those negative consequences be sufficient to change public opinion before, or only after, we have left the EU?

That last question is important because, for many Remain MPs, a shift in public opinion is the pre-condition for demanding that the matter be put back to the British people.

This is why there should be a new urgency in the work of all the pro-EU forces in the country, and effective collaboration to fight any incipient fatalism in a country wearied by prolonged austerity.

We must continue to remind every part of our society – our businesses, our farmers, our universities and students, our public services, and our communities, urban and rural – that this process is a massive and destructive distraction for the whole country, imposing an opportunity cost that will entail lost jobs, lost influence and lost decades, and blight the future of a whole generation in the process.

Geraint Talfan Davies, Chair of Wales For Europe