My final column for The Journal

24 January 2020

It will sound like a cliche, but the only way to describe these past three years is an absolute rollercoaster and I think, no matter which side of the Brexit argument you find yourself on, you will agree. But I must admit that there was a time between these ups and downs of will the vote pass? will we have some certainty about the future? will there be a general election? (the list could go on forever), when I truly believed I wouldn’t have to write this. Yet here we are, the beginning of a new year but the end of a huge chapter: our country’s membership of the EU.

Back in 2016 immediately following the referendum result, when I had a joint office with Paul Brannen representing the North East together, we started a consultation with the region’s political leaders, businesses, voluntary organisations, universities and trade unions, as well as residents. It was our way of trying to understand the referendum result and how we moved on in a way that gave the North East and its people the best possible chance of avoiding the damage of Brexit. We wanted the findings of this consultation to form the basis for giving Brexit negotiators at European and UK level a regional perspective. Both Paul and I knew that our region had been left behind by years of Tory governments and held behind by their austerity measures. We wanted to give it a prominent voice in the most monumental political process in recent history.

It was a good way of understanding the regional picture, as well as forming our own ideas of what our next steps were going to be. We decided to focus on five simple red lines, which were later replicated by Labour’s six red lines for any Brexit deal. Because our region relies on trading with our EU neighbours - about 60% of our exports go to them and around 100000 jobs depend on it - we said no job should be lost as a result of Brexit. Our beautiful North East needs a prosperous economy in order to be at the forefront of innovation in medicine, digital technology, manufacturing and many other industries, and therefore we said not a single penny should be lost either. We were clear that our rights as citizens of Europe, but also at our workplace, should never be in jeopardy or revoked by a government with no scruples. Based on concerns raised during our consultation, it became clear that our security as a country was also a top priority and that cooperation with the European Union must continue. And last, but certainly not least, we made it clear that Britain outside of the EU should continue to do as much as possible to combat climate change, by keeping our beaches and rivers in the North East pollution-free.

In the last three years, Paul and I spent our time making the case that these red lines should not to be crossed in the negotiating process, both in the European Parliament and at home. We kept the safeguarding of citizens’ rights at the forefront, as people’s lives and futures should never have been used as bargaining chips, in the way we have seen in recent years. Our priorities were clear from day one and we stuck to them throughout the years, making sure they shaped our work to protect our region’s future prosperity and jobs. At the end of the chapter I can say that I am proud of our legacy.

Unfortunately, despite all of our campaigning and canvassing efforts, along with those of other Labour MEPs and MPs alike, we are now faced with a majority Conservative government with a free reign to do as they please. The hardest of Brexits seems to be in the works, and we have known for a while - from the government themselves - what damage this would cause to our regional economy, jobs and livelihoods.

So with days to go until we remove ourselves from the most successful peace project, from a friendship circle that has truly shaped not only our continent, but the whole world, making it a better place, I want to reiterate that it has been an absolute honour and privilege to represent and serve my beautiful and diverse home region. I know for a fact I am speaking on Paul’s behalf too in that respect. I can only hope that in the future the UK will decide to take its seat back at the decision-making table in a reformed EU.  

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

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