“All the justifications for Brexit are being dismantled”—The MEPs fighting to stop British departure

They know Brussels better than anyone—and want to prevent the unfolding chaos

April 20, 2018
The logo of the European Parliament. Photo: Sascha Steinach/DPA/PA Images
The logo of the European Parliament. Photo: Sascha Steinach/DPA/PA Images

We’re told that the people no longer like unelected experts and officials, but many forget that the UK has a store of elected ones in the form of UK MEPs. Not only do they have a deep understanding of the workings of Brussels, they see first-hand the impact of European Union membership on the UK and the regions and nations of it they represent. They also have a vote on the Withdrawal Agreement itself when it comes to the European Parliament.

While cross-party efforts are accelerating in Westminster, many UK MEPs from across the major parties have been dedicated to opposing Brexit for some time. Many believe, like me, that it can and must be stopped.

Conservative MEP Charles Tannock told France 24 recently that “All sorts of problems are being exposed, almost daily, that weren’t even thought about during the campaign.” The Green MEP Molly Scott Cato argues that “All the justifications for Brexit are being dismantled” and, one by one, the arguments for it are falling.

Scott Cato points out that the EU27 will require any free trade agreement to restrict deregulation or a race to the bottom on tax, which “takes away a key plank of the argument for Brexit.” The trade deals that will apparently launch Global Britain turn out to be some way away and would contribute comparably little to the replacement of lost trade with the EU anyway. Instead of Brexit heralding a revitalised UK in the world, it will, in the words of Tannock, leave the UK “Geopolitically isolated.”

Labour MEP Jude Kirton-Darling argues that the government’s rejection of the Single Market and Customs Union “Risks the future of our economy and business, cutting us off from the EU social and employment rights on which British workers rely.”

It is not just product standards and workers’ rights at risk. Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder is “opposed to the notion that we can have a Green Brexit.” Green MEP Keith Taylor agrees that the “‘Green Brexit’ myth has been exposed,” and says the government “continues to ignore the majority of farmers, animal welfare advocates and the 93 per cent of UK consumers who want to see vital EU safeguards maintained.”

MEPs see that Brexit will harm individuals and their communities and regions to a sometimes extraordinary degree. Kirton-Darling’s constituency is the North East of England. “For a region like my own with a large exporting manufacturing and services base, government and independent research has forecast a drop of 16 per cent in the case of a hard Brexit,” and this only falls to 11 per cent even if an FTA is concluded. That’s a lot of jobs lost, wages depressed, and lives made worse, and no part of the UK will escape without serious economic pain.

The continuing deadlock over the Irish border issue casts doubt on a Withdrawal Agreement even being concluded. Keith Taylor, a member of the European Parliament’s Peace Process Support Group, says that “the government needs to stop pinning its hopes on Brexit Unicorns and magical thinking” and accept that the only actual solution is membership of the Single Market and a Customs Union. “Peace is,” he says, “too important to be sacrificed on the altar of a shambolic Brexit.”

Plaid Cymru MEP Jill Evans sees Brexit as being “bad for Wales in every way.” She is “convinced that the only way to truly put the interests of Wales first is to stop us leaving.” Alyn Smith has said that “the future we face is pretty bleak, and it is not one Scotland wants.”

But can Brexit be stopped? EU27 leaders say it can be. The Presidents of the EU Council, Parliament and the Commission have said that the UK can change its mind and cancel Brexit, and this has been echoed by the French President, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, and the German Foreign Minister among others. Politically, Article 50 can be revoked by, as one senior official put it, “a single letter.”

The question then is what would need to happen for the UK to send this “single letter.” For the answer we have to turn back to Westminster.

An Institute for Government (IfG) report out this week that argues that David Davis is wrong to paint a vote in parliament as a choice between leaving with a deal or with no deal. Parliament will be able to amend the Motion on the Withdrawal Agreement (and its accompanying political declaration on the future relationship) to require the government to renegotiate the agreement, bring legislation for a referendum on it, or to revoke Article 50.

While I think the EU27 are unlikely to be in any mood for a renegotiation by that stage, the other options are on the table. The IfG report rightly points out that a referendum on the Withdrawal Agreement and the accompanying Declaration on the future relationship would be technically complex, and subject to serious time constraints, but it concludes that it would be possible, particularly if an extension to the two years prescribed by Article 50 was agreed. The sense I have in Brussels is that an extension may be possible if it were for democratic processes to play out, but not just for the government to try to correct the errors of its cack-handed negotiations.

Calls for a “People’s vote” on the deal are echoed by many. Conservative MEP Charles Tannock has tweeted that it is the “only hope to end division in the country.” Labour MEP Seb Dance has argued that “The British People have a right to decide whether what they were promised is being delivered.” His advice is to “Write to your MP, demand a final say.”

This is good advice. MPs need to see the public desire for them to act close up. Public opinion has shifted slightly against Brexit generally, but it needs to shift more. Polling suggests though that the appetite for a Final Say on the Withdrawal Agreement is significantly clearer. As Liberal Democrat Catherine Bearder points out, Leavers still confident in their view “should relish the opportunity to put their deal to the British people.”

Brexit must be stopped to avoid appalling harm to the UK and its constituent nations, regions and people. It can be, though it is by no means easy or straightforward. A lot has to happen. To quote Alyn Smith, “The future we now face is of a diminished UK, a diminished Europe, a poorer citizenry, a poorer economy. As we see what the reality of Brexit really is, there is no shame in changing our mind. There is still time to change course.”