The door is still open

Julie Ward on the madness of isolationism

“We’ve all had enough of experts” was an infamous line trotted out by the Leave campaigners during the 2016 EU referendum debate. Ironically, nearly three years on, the British public now have a far better understanding of how the EU works, what its institutions do, and how we benefit. For many this has led to a change of heart – check out #RemainerNow.

The chronic failure of this Tory government is that at every twist and turn it has shown how out of depth it is regarding negotiations and preparations for Brexit of any kind. That is partly why some form of extension to Article 50 is necessary. Regardless of the end point, there simply isn’t enough time for the UK parliament to push through necessary legislation. Even if May’s deal manages to pass in the House of Commons, a technical extension would be needed to ensure the passage of five key pieces of legislation and over 600 statutory instruments.

Barnier already warned last autumn that it’s not more time that’s really needed but decisions, so the EU might be open to an extension if it included a new democratic initiative such as a general election, a People’s Vote or Citizens Assemblies. Sabine Weyand, Deputy Chief Negotiator for the EU, said on January 28th, that the EU’s heads of state and governments would need information on “the purpose of an extension”, adding, “the idea of going into serial extensions really isn’t very popular in the EU27”.

Right from the start, Theresa May and her team have been cavalier and arrogant in their approach to Brexit. This began with the triggering of Article 50 without a plan, then came the utterly reckless Mansion House speech with the Prime Minister’s red lines, the calling of a snap general election, and the continued use of EU27 citizens as bargaining chips, whilst all the time suggesting there would be a Brexit dividend.

Then, there is the appalling failure to understand the consequences at the Irish border and the undermining of the Good Friday Agreement. Brexit is in itself a contravention of the Agreement and jeopardises a fragile peace built up over the past twenty years. The EU holds firm to the integrity of its four freedoms which means the backstop is crucial as a response to Theresa May’s red lines.

Dominic Raab admitted he had not read the Good Friday Agreement, even whilst as Brexit Secretary. Meanwhile, Karen Bradley, Northern Ireland Secretary, reflected, “I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues.” 

The litany of Tory failures would be laughable if the consequences were not so serious, yet the government is trying to blame everyone but themselves, whether that be the European Commission, Jeremy Corbyn or backbench MPs. We are sleepwalking into a constitutional and economic crisis the like of which we have not seen in generations.

Now is the time for honesty and transparency. That must begin with an acknowledgement that no deal is catastrophic for our country and bad for our neighbours. Colleagues here in the European Parliament cannot believe that any rational government would even contemplate the thought, yet in Brussels and across the EU preparations for a no-deal Brexit are fairly advanced. In each committee in the European Parliament there is a Brexit Working Group tasked with discussing the implications of various scenarios.

In the Culture and Education Committee, for example, a decision has just been made regarding the UK’s participation in Erasmus+ in the eventuality of no-deal. This would honour the participation of British beneficiaries who had already begun Erasmus+ projects but nothing else can be agreed beyond March 29th.

Although initially reticent to comment for fear of being perceived as ‘interfering’ in our affairs, MEP colleagues have become increasingly outspoken in their support of alternatives to ‘hard Brexit’. Austrian Socialist and Democrat MEP Josef Weidenholzer organised a heart-warming open letter to the British people in January which was signed by 129 MEPs from different political groups. The letter suggested that the door is still open, “any British decision to remain in the EU would be warmly welcomed by us and we would work with you to reform and improve the European Union, so that it works better in the interests of all citizens”.

Whatever the outcome of Brexit, no matter where it leads, the reputational damage and the loss of soft power will take time to recover. We will still only be 17 miles away from our closest allies and our biggest trading bloc. The madness of isolationism becomes more and more apparent as each day passes. We do not have to follow such a hazardous and dangerous route, we could still yet remain fighting for a Europe for the Many.

Julie Ward

Julie Ward is an MEP for North West England.