Paul's Column on Brexit Bill debate

01 March 2017

We are in a burning building and the fire has taken hold.  There is general agreement that we all need to leave the building.  Some are advocating a headlong rush to the nearest available exit with a view to leaving the building as quickly as possible.  Other, wiser heads, are suggesting a slower and more orderly exit, pointing out the danger of people falling and being trampled on if we are too hasty. 

As an analogy for Brexit I think this works rather well.  This week the House of Lords are debating the Brexit Bill and may be set to inflict a double defeat on the Government.

Labour, Liberal Democrats, cross-benchers and Tory rebels including Lord Heseltine have all rallied around two amendments that would force changes on the legislation that starts the Brexit talks. 

One change would ensure every EU citizen currently in Britain keeps the right to work and stay here, even if Britons living in the 27 other Member States lose similar protections. 

The second would force ministers to get the approval of MPs and peers on the final Brexit deal before they withdraw from the EU – an effective veto.

As it happens we MEPs will have a vote in the European Parliament on the final deal. It would seem mighty odd that having ‘taken back control’ in the EU referendum the final deal will be voted on by the 751 members of the European Parliament but not by the 650 members of the British Parliament.    

Amended or not, the government is on course to trigger Article 50 by the end of March but then the problems really begin.  Why?  Because while the referendum result gave a clear, albeit narrow, endorsement of the British people’s desire to leave the EU it gave no indication as to ‘how’ to do it.  Do we run for the exit or do we walk in an orderly manner? 

The complexity of why lies before us has been highlighted by Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s ambassador in Brussels until his recent resignation.  As Labour MEPs we held regular meetings with Sir Ivan throughout last year so I had a chance to observe a senior Foreign Office mandarin at close quarters and I must say it was an impressive sight. 

Sir Ivan is of the view that the exit talks between the British government and EU leaders will be incredibly tough, could take up to a decade to conclude and will likely turn nasty over the issue of money.   The EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has informed Theresa May's government that the EU expects Britain to pay around £50 billion as the cost of its divorce from the EU.  Essentially this money is to pay for our outstanding liabilities which could include future EU spending on issues that the UK, while a member, voted for.

One of the myths circulating is that after March negotiations will begin that see UK politicians and officials sitting in a room in Brussels with their EU 27 remaining nation counterparts.  In reality it’s the EU 27 who will be in the room discussing what deal to offer the UK while we sit outside in the corridor and may or may not be called in from time to time.  Quite why anyone thinks they will offer us a good deal is beyond me.  An eight month enquiry by the French Senate concluded that the UK must not be better off outside the EU after Brexit, a view shared by all remaining member states.  

Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a former French premier who chaired the inquiry, said: “From a European point of view ... the new agreements cannot be better than the old ones – which might be difficult for the United Kingdom side to accept.”  ‘Difficult?’  Nigh on impossible for the Daily Mail to accept.

Here in the North East I don’t think the mood has changed very much in the 8 months since the Referendum.  The Remainers are in the main resigned to leaving and the Leavers are still of the view that it’s all a good idea. The reality is that none of us are really any the wiser as to what Brexit for our region will actually look like when we finally get there.

Do you think the North East needs its own voice in the EU exit negotiations?

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