Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Why the EU should let the UK revoke Article 50

An intervention is needed to halt, or at least pause, this cycle of harm.

The government is locked into a Brexit death spiral of its own making, and is hurtling willingly towards a catastrophic “no deal” scenario. Like any friend who goes off the rails, it needs an intervention by loved ones to get it out of its cycle of harm.

An overt offer from the 27 remaining EU states for the UK to revoke Article 50 may be the intervention that it needs to do this. It may also be in the EU27s interests to extend such an invitation.

As it stands, there are only 12 months until an exit deal must be reached, as this must also be agreed by the European Parliament. After five rounds of negotiations however, and despite some technical progress, none of the initial three separation issues have been solved.

Each of these issues requires serious movement on the part of the UK to unlock negotiations. The movement on citizens' rights is not yet sufficient. Despite Theresa May's overtures in her Florence speech, the UK is still unwilling to seriously discuss its financial liabilities, let alone agree to actually meet them. Despite all agreeing a border would be bad, it is now obvious there is no real solution to the Irish issue that does not involve either a real border, or Northern Ireland being in the customs union or a direct equivalent of it.

The EU’s position on these issues is well justified. Significant “concessions” from the EU27 on these would not help EU citizens in the UK, UK citizens in the EU, or the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic. Rolling back on the principle that what was committed to by the 28 EU members should be honoured by the 28 would simply open a pointless bidding war. There will not then be "sufficient progress" for next week’s EU Council to agree to opening talks on the future relationship. It’s now possible that there never will be.

Throughout this process, the UK government has shown itself to be a disunited, unreliable negotiating partner. After invoking Article 50 it took nearly six months to agree on the need for a transition period, and it has still not agreed internally on what it wants this to look like. The government has not agreed internally on any of the three issues listed above, or the future relationship it wants. The Tory party cannot even agree whether it wants a future relationship, or a deliberate no deal.

With this level of disunity, it is a genuine question for the EU27 as to whether the UK government could actually deliver any agreement it did manage to make.

It’s also worth remembering that the EU27 did not ask for any of this to happen. Yet the government and sections of the press are positioning themselves at every turn to ensure that the EU27 is blamed for failures.

This developing "blame myth" is important. If it takes hold it could make it politically impossible for this or any future UK government to commit to close co-operation with EU in the future. It could not only make a new free trade agreement or similar impossible, but also jeopardise co-operation in security and other essential areas.

The government acts as if it is unaware of the catastrophic consequences of “no deal”. With each ramping up of rhetoric, each complaint over the agreed sequencing, every briefing on low-ball figures for the financial settlement, the government hems itself further into a corner that it cannot get out of. An intervention is needed to halt, or at least create a pause, in this damaging cycle.

A calm, polite and overt offer from the EU27 to the UK to revoke Article 50 could do just that. It would offer an honourable climbdown for the floundering and divided government. It would give the government, parliament, and the UK population an opportunity to pause for some honest reflection as to whether this is, or is still, what it wants.

It could well push the Labour Party, and indeed some Conservative MPs to favour accepting the offer. It would also make it absolutely apparent that a “no deal” scenario is only acceptable to the UK government. Finally, it would ensure that the victim myth – that the EU27 are to blame for the government’s own choices – is put to rest. 

Were the offer accepted, the UK and EU27 would save vast sums of money that would otherwise lost due to Brexit. The time and energy the EU is now focusing on Brexit could be refocused on positive initiatives. The Good Friday Agreement would be protected, and uncertainty for millions of citizens would be removed. Co-operation in key areas such as security would not be undermined.

Were the offer refused, this would at least end uncertainty about Brexit. It would affirm that the UK government had chosen to continue in full knowledge of the situation facing it, including the EU27’s positions, the movement required to make progress in negotiations, the agreed sequencing, and the consequences of the different possible outcomes.

Would it actually help the UK? Hard Leavers would no doubt use any offer to stoke anti-EU feeling, and support the Ukip myth that the EU is desperately trying "imprison" the UK within it. “Who do they think they are?” they wouldd no doubt cry.

The point is that that Rees-Moggian section of Leavers are crying that anyway, but it may give soft Leavers and those that did not vote for this chaotic Brexit pause for thought.

Ultimately, it is not the EU27’s fault that Brexit is happening at all, or that the UK government has gone about it in such a cack-handed, ill thought out way. It is not the EU27’s fault that the UK government cannot maintain unity on even the most basic of questions. The EU27 has a responsibility to act in its own interests and to minimise the harm caused by Brexit, not to help out a flailing Conservative Party. It may even be too late. The EU27 may prefer it if UK just slipped away now.

While not having a deal would harm the UK significantly more than the EU27, the damage to the remaining member states would still be very real. Offering a chance to revoke Article 50 could help to minimise, or even eliminate much of the harm to the EU27. Besides, friends help out friends, even when they’ve screwed up.

Steve Bullock worked at the UK Representation to the EU from 2010-2014 where he negotiated several EU regulations for the UK. He has also worked for the European Commission and the Department for International Developments Europe Department. He tweets @GuitarMoog

Getty
Show Hide image

Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”