The Royal County Hotel in Durham is best known for providing the balcony from which trade union and Labour leaders acknowledge the banners and marching bands on the day of the Durham Miners’ Gala.
Last week it became one of several venues we used across the region as part of our MEP consultation on how to ensure the North East makes the most of Brexit and is not disadvantaged by our departure from the European Union in two or so years’ time.
There is a danger that the exit negotiations led by a Conservative government in London fail to adequately take into account the views of those regions furthest away from Westminster, especially those regions, like ours, with very few Conservative MPs.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, while physically distant from London, have the advantage of having their own devolved parliaments with recognisable leaders who will make sure their distinct national voices, concerns and aspirations are heard in London and Brussels.
In comparison it is not as clear who speaks for the North East of England. While we may not carry quite the political heft of Nicola Sturgeon, with her clear mandate deriving from being the First Minister of Scotland, Jude Kirton-Darling and I are two democratically elected politicians who do represent the whole of the North East region. This is why we have set about consulting businesses, universities, charities, individuals, trade unions, young people, politicians etc. from Berwick to Teesside to make sure we are up to speed with what people are thinking as we head at increasing speed towards Brexit. Which benefits derived from our EU membership do we need to ensure continue after we leave and which new opportunities do we need to seize?
Key questions we are asking include, what should the North East’s priorities be in negotiations and are they similar or different to the priorities of other UK regions or nations? Is there anything that is very specific to the North East that we need to make absolutely sure the EU and UK negotiators are aware of? How important is access to the Single Market for the North East? What is the best way of replacing the European regional and social funding that we currently receive? What value is placed on workers’ and consumers’ rights and should environmental standards be maintained at the current level or not?
Our consultation may also throw up the question of how well represented the North East is within the structure of the United Kingdom and whether we need a greater emphasis on reforming our own institutions, once we no longer have a European tier of governance.
To make sure the consultation input is not dominated by the views of the urban North East, where the majority of the population live, we used last week’s event in the Royal County Hotel in Durham to consult with a wide range of rural organisations.
Ultimately we intend to present our findings to both the UK’s negotiators based in Westminster and the EU’s negotiators based in Brussels. Given our MEP roles we will be able to meet with the President of the Parliament Martin Schultz, a fellow socialist MEP, Guy Verhofstadt MEP a former Belgian Prime Minister who will represent the parliament in the negotiations and hopefully Jean-Claude Junker, the President of the Commission.
The decision to leave the EU brings an unprecedented array of challenges for our region but also new opportunities, which is why we believe it is vitally important that the region’s voice is heard in the Brexit negotiations.
The referendum result was an expression of the frustration and disillusionment that large numbers of people feel with politics and society in this country. Our response must be to listen to all voices, in order to try and help facilitate the most beneficial deal for our region, hence we want to hear from everyone.