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13 March 2017

The slower, surer road back to Europe

Last year a million newcomers arrived. European migration policy is going to adapt. In the meantime, Britain must not step into the void.

By Liam Byrne

The phoney war is over and the Battle of Britain is on. In a boring grey Brussels office block 12 miles north of Waterloo, ministers will this week sound the retreat from our most successful alliance of the post-war years. It is a tragic moment. A stark reminder that progress is never, ever permanent. 

For the Left, this must now become a moment of resolve; when we begin to plot the slow and steady path back to Europe not just with idealism but with realism.

I admire the brave hope of those who defend the British peoples’ right to change their mind. They are right. We should press for Parliament to have a say on the final deal. The British people voted for for Parliamentary sovereignty not a dictatorship of the executive. And imagine if Mrs May fails to strike a deal? 

The price will be gigantic. Trading with the EU on World Trade Organisation rules will mean tariffs that could destroy our car firms. A haemorrhage in services orders. A new border that becomes a hairshirt bleeding our trade to death.

The hard Brexiteers might feel it brings them moral purity. But no one else will enjoy the economic sadomasochism. Their purity will mean our poverty. 

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Yet, Labour can’t block the exit. The debilitation of Brexit is not the facilitator of Labour’s resurgence. Let’s remember that in the English super-marginals we held in 2005, and then lost, the Brexit vote was nearly 60 per cent. 

But we can offer a safer surer route forward, if we accept the route needs to unfold slowly enough for the politics of Europe to gently bake a reform of free movement that we can live with, and adopt ourselves, sometime in the 2020s. 

I suspect we’ll soon be told loud and clear that there is no way on earth a EU free trade deal will be ready in just 24 months time. What lies ahead is several years of transitional arrangements, taking us perhaps to 2023. 

But given the migration pressures on Europe today, it is inconceivable that today’s version of free movement will last that long. The EU rebellion is not limited to our shores. Europe’s skies are dark. Concerns and divisions over the handling of terrorism, migration, the logic and the impact of endless austerity are fuelling a Eurosceptic revolt. The European economy is mired in slow growth. Youth unemployment remains sky high. A retiring generation face an income squeeze as savings rates hit rock bottom. The next recession may be imminent. When it comes, who knows if the single currency will survive intact. Southern banks are faltering. Yet the bail-out funds are empty.

But Europe survives precisely because it adapts; as it did after the French voted “non” to defence cooperation in 1954; or after Denmark voted “no” to Maastricht. Or when the Irish rejecting the Treaty of Nice in 2001. Or when the Swedes turned away from the Euro in 2003. Europe adapts. 

Last year a million newcomers arrived on the shores of the Continent in the biggest movement of people since the Second World War. European migration policy is going to adapt. Not overnight. But over the years ahead. Europe will adapt. It always does. 

The key, therefore is to make sure that Britain does not step into the void and slam the door closed forever. Instead, we have to recast a federal project into a confederal project. This implies a triple shift on Europe policy. 

First, we need to rejoin the free trade association we helped to found as a alternative to the Treaty of Rome, back in 1960: the European Free Trade Association, known as EFTA. 

It’s a free market not a political union. With the freedom to control our borders. Outside the European Court of Justice but with a trade court that’s tried and tested. With the flexibility to fix our own terms with the EU. The free trade deals it has in place, cover nearly a fifth of our export markets. Indeed, with EFTA membership, the U.K. would need just five more deals – with the EU, the US, Japan, China and Australia, to cover 90 per cent of exports.

Second, we should be using the Council of Europe to defend decency, democracy and the social rights which might fall prey to the Tories’ Great Reform Bill. Winston Churchill created the Council, based on the European Court of Human Rights to ensure there was never a return to the barbarities of the Nazi era. We now need to use it to local in important conventions like the European Social Charter, and the Istanbul Convention. 

Third, we need free movement reform that keeps us in touching distance of a new deal with Europe further down the line. The logical change is to extend the points system to European migration so that jobs in the UK. need to be offered to British citizens first – before being offered to someone from abroad, with quotas for low-skill workers. 

And, given we want privileges for Brits working in Europe, it makes sense to privilege EU citizens, with generous allowances for an EU intra-company transfers or a Green Card system that let’s skilled EU citizens apply for jobs in Britain, rather than from abroad. 

Leaving Europe and the single market is without doubt, five steps backwards. But a triple shift on Europe at least offers us one step forward. It is a tactical retreat to ground that is more easily defended and from where we can advance when new times allow. 

I don’t think it’s bad politics to argue for the best in the negotiations that are to start. We should hope for the best. But we should plan for the worst. Theresa May has a slim majority. That means we can win votes by striking for the sensible centre. And it’s time for Labour to explain just where that centre-ground now lies.