Emma Reynolds, Labour MP for Wolverhampton North East has delivered the annual Brussels Labour Lecture in memory of John Fitzmaurice. The speech was called: What should the progressive left’s approach be to Brexit?

What should the progressive left’s approach be to Brexit?


Thank you for that welcome.

I want to thank Brussels Labour for inviting me to give this annual lecture in honour of John Fitzmaurice – a great European, friend and colleague of many of us in this room.

John’s values of equality and co-operation informed all of his work, in the European Parliament and then in the European Commission.

His passion for European politics was evident in his many books and articles.

If only he were here now to help and guide us.

I wonder what he would make of the last week in British politics which is sounding more and more like an episode of Yes Minister.

I am also delighted to be back in what is actually my second political home. I have fond memories of my time here in Brussels.

Like many others, I came to do a 6-month internship and I stayed for 6 years.

I advised small businesses and then worked for Robin Cook and the Party of European Socialists.

And of course I spent many an evening drinking fine wine, eating good cheese and sharing gossip with other members of Brussels Labour. Many of whom are here tonight.

In fact I helped organize the first ever John Fitzmaurice annual lecture.

It was given by Neil Kinnock back in 2003, and his usual passion and eloquence resonated perfectly with the huge storm raging and rattling against the windows of the restaurant in Rue de Franklin.

Two years later, I drafted the then Europe Minister, Geoff Hoon’s speech – in which he spoke of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the extraordinary excitement of people coming together and of Europe finally being reunited.

When I arrived in Brussels in 2000, it also felt like a time of great optimism.

Tony Blair was in Downing Street, Bill Clinton in the White House, social democrats were in power in 11 out of 15 EU member states.

We felt like we were part of something significant, something special, something capable of transforming the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

So 16 years ago, when I was dragging my oversized suitcase off the Eurostar at the Gare du Midi – little did I imagine – that I would be standing here today talking about the UK leaving the EU.

I know that the UK hasn’t always been the easiest partner – throwing our handbags around, demanding opt outs left, right and centre, and treating the EU like a pick n mix sweet shop.

Every marriage has its ups and downs but I never thought it would end in a separation, let alone a divorce.

In the immediate aftermath of the vote to leave, those of us who campaigned to remain have felt both disappointed and disorientated.

But, we have to accept the outcome and we have to start thinking about what the new relationship between the UK and the EU will look like, what kind of country we want to be and how we heal the many divisions that have opened up.

That’s why I am here today leading a delegation of 17 Labour MPs to meet our European partners in the Commission, Parliament and Council.

So that we can help to shape the best way forward.

But first, we need to understand why we lost the referendum.

3 years ago, when I was shadow Europe Minister under Ed Miliband, David Cameron decided that managing his fractious party and fighting off UKIP were his overriding priorities, so he promised a referendum some time before 2017.

Fast forward to June this year and we lost that referendum, with over 17 million voting to leave.

The Leave campaign’s mantra of “take back control” resonates with people.

People who feel the economy doesn’t work for them.

People who feel the government has lost control of immigration.

People who feel their jobs, their wages and their identity are under threat.

People who feel that no one listens to their concerns – such as those on council estates in my constituency in Wolverhampton who turned out to vote in record numbers.

Some of these feelings are deep-rooted and the reasons for them go beyond our membership of the European Union and indeed the parameters of this speech.

So I want to focus on what the government’s approach has been and what it should be?

For weeks the Prime Minister parroted the line Brexit means Brexit, but this is meaningless given our exit from the EU could take so many different forms.

It was only last month, at the Tory Party conference in Birmingham, that Theresa May and her Ministers started to put meat on the bone.

And all the signs suggest that they’re hell-bent on a hard Brexit with Ministers on the conference platform ramping up the rhetoric, throwing reason and responsibility out the window.

They put immigration above all other concerns.

The Home Secretary suggested naming and shaming companies who employ migrant workers.

The international trade secretary described EU nationals working in the UK as a “card” in the negotiations.

Even the UKIP MEP Patrick O’Flynn tweeted at the time “The number of policies Mrs May is lifting out of the UKIP manifesto is astonishing. Almost like we are in power but not in office!

For once I agree with him.

And while, the right-wing tabloids roared with delight, and the applause reverberated around the conference hall among the Tory party faithful.

….the anti-foreigner rhetoric ricocheted around the world, the value of the pound plummeted and governments and businesses looked on appalled.

And it doesn’t stop there. The battle raging at the heart of government means that the ideologues could deliver a quick, hard and destructive Brexit.

But the jury is still out on so many issues – are we going to stay or leave the customs union, are we going to abandon altogether the single market, are we seeking a transitional arrangement post March 2019?

And as if the fallout of the Tory conference wasn’t bad enough, last week our national debate sunk to a new low.

After the government’s attempted use of the ancient royal prerogative to trigger article 50 was struck down by the courts, we saw Ministers playing fast and lose with our democracy, our institutions and our future.

It was appalling to see several Tory Ministers join Nigel Farage in willfully misrepresenting the Court’s ruling.

Let’s be clear – the judges are not attempting to thwart the will of the people. They simply ruled that given Parliament voted for the European Communities Act, only Parliament can vote to repeal it.

It was also appalling that the Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss, sat on her hands for days while the judges were subjected to vitriolic abuse from her colleagues and from some in the press.

She eventually fulfilled her constitutional duty and defended their independence – albeit in a half-hearted manner.

The truth is that most MPs are in the same position as me, we are democrats and we accept the outcome of the referendum.

The government therefore should stop wasting time and taxpayers’ money appealing to the Supreme Court, and we should get on with the process of parliamentary scrutiny and making sure the government has the best possible plan.

Not only has Theresa May and her government mishandled this situation, they have clearly demonstrated that they are continuing to put the Tory party interest ahead of the national interest.

Doesn’t this remind you of yet another episode of Yes Minister – where the PM declares – “now we have a commons rebellion, they are demanding to be told what we are doing”.

It would be funny, if it weren’t so serious.

Aside from the political and legal situation, what is the government doing to mitigate the economic risks of leaving the EU?

It obviously came as good news that Nissan will continue to invest in the North East of England, after initially telling the government their investment was on hold until they were sure they wouldn’t face tariffs.

But the question is what assurances were they offered?

The government needs a coherent strategy to support manufacturing and services.

This cannot be handled on a case by case basis.

They should also consider the potential cliff edge that we could face in March 2019 after our exit, but before a trade deal is in place with the rest of the EU.

Along with Hilary Benn, the new chair of the Brexit Select Committee, of which I am also a member, Labour MPs have been pressing the government to seek a transitional arrangement.

Otherwise, we will fall off the cliff and back on to WTO rules and tariffs which would be devastating for businesses, jobs and people’s living standards.

And it would be a hammer-blow from which entire communities would struggle to recover.

In parliament, when I asked the Prime Minister and David Davis about this, they seemed to think that we can negotiate a free trade deal alongside the article 50 within two years.

But in reality, as we all know, these things take longer.

Take the recent Canada – EU free trade deal which took 7 years and was nearly derailed by the Parliament of Wallonia.

It is inevitable that any trade deal requires some pooling of sovereignty.

If not ECJ rulings, there will need to be arbitration procedures.

And the truth is the more we are prepared to pool, the better access we’ll get, the better the deal we’ll secure.

As the Prime Minister has discovered in Delhi only this week, trade deals also require negotiations on migration.

The idea of some of the Brexiteers that we can strike trade deals on trade alone is, quite simply, for the birds.

So it is clear that the Tories have mismanaged this process and if they continue do so, there are real dangers ahead for our economy, jobs and prosperity.

Therefore, the progressive left needs to step up and shape the debate.

Building goodwill with our European partners must be a priority.

The negotiations shouldn’t be seen as a zero sum game.

The collective and mutual interest of the UK and the EU must be paramount.

Our starting point in the negotiations shouldn’t be the typical Tory approach of vetoes, blackmail and high-handedness, instead we need to stress what we can bring to the table.

Our expertise in security and counter-terrorism.

Our leadership on international aid and climate change.

Our strength in foreign and defence policy.

Our great universities who want to attract the brightest and the best.

The City of London as the centre of financial services – for our collective good, we must not let Europe lose out to New York or Singapore.

We should defend at all costs the progressive gains of our EU membership; on workers’ rights, consumer protection, and on the environment and climate change.

And avoid at all costs a race to the bottom. We don’t want to become a deregulated, offshore, poor neighbour of our EU partners.

So the progressive left should seek to maintain the closest trade arrangement with the EU; and we should also consider reforms to free movement.

The government should make it crystal clear that EU nationals already in the UK are welcome to stay, and hope that our EU partners will make the same promise to UK nationals in Brussels and elsewhere.

We also need to explore the various options and ideas that have been floated – whether it’s focusing on labour mobility rather than free movement, whether it’s regional work permits or a tiered approach that differentiates between highly skilled and low skilled workers.

As progressives, we understand that tone will be as important as substance.

I don’t believe the arrogant and condescending Brexiteer rhetoric that “they need us more than we need them”.

This sort of language will only encourage our European partners to turn our backs on us.

And we have to recognize that for our European partners, there are bigger strategic questions about the role of the European Union at stake, which go well beyond economics.

We also need to bear in mind that each member state has its own domestic politics.

There are general elections in 4 member states next year, including in France and Germany.

There is a real danger that some of European partners want to extract a political price from us pour decourager les autres – to discourage others.

But we need to persuade them that that would be counterproductive.

After all, we clearly need each other because we share so many of the same challenges:

- The ongoing conflict in Syria

- Russian aggression

- climate change, international aid and the fight against terrorism

None of these challenges are going away.

None of these challenges will be solved by British isolation.

So in conclusion, it is in Europe’s interest and our interest, that we start to write a new chapter in European history – a new chapter of European cooperation involving the UK, albeit as a non-EU member.

Instead of talking about a divorce, we need to talk about the start of a new relationship with the EU.

Now is not the time to re-run the referendum, but to embrace the challenges ahead.

Now is not the time to seek to change voters’ minds, but to support them through new and uncharted waters.

And now is not the time for playing party politics, but to put our mutual interests above all other considerations.

As John Fitzmaurice said: “The triumph of ideals has to be organized” and as Neil Kinnock said in the first of these annual lectures, this requires a hard slog!

The progressive centre-left in the UK and across Europe must be the voice of reason, of unity, and of goodwill.

It is incumbent on all of us to forge a new partnership.

To recast our relationship between the UK and the EU on the best possible terms.

And to put co-operation and our collective interest at the centre of this new chapter of European history.