Speech by Brendan Howlin TD on Dail Brexit motion

21 November 2018

Brexit revealed the very serious inability of our public discourse to deal with complex issues, such as what is entailed by membership of the EU.

 

Looking back over the last five decades, the British media has portrayed the European Union in a simplistic and hostile way.

If someone only read the front page of tabloid newspapers – and not only tabloids – they’d be forgiven for thinking all sorts of crazy lies about Europe.

 

This is not trivial.

The European Commission office in the UK set up a website to counter myths about the EU, covering the period 1992 to 2017.

It lists nearly 700 different myths that have been circulated.

From false claims that the EU would ban fresh pasta, colouring pencils and vitamin supplements, through to claims that the EU would standardise the sizes of vegetables, rename popular British food products and even abolish the double-decker bus.

Seen collectively it is preposterous nonsense.

But the relentless background noise about the EU is, for many people, the only information they have received about European co-operation.

 

This bias was not helped by generations of politicians who took the credit for popular policies but blamed Brussels for imposing anything they wanted to distance themselves from.

 

It is no wonder that UKIP grew out of this fertile soil.

And it is no wonder that Europe began to be seen as the problem, and for leaving the EU to be seen as the solution.

 

We do, as my colleague Jeremy Corbyn reminds us, have to understand the reasons why many British people voted Leave in the referendum two years ago.

 

For some Leave voters, it was because they were lied to, not just during the referendum campaign – where illegal campaign spending and a host of lies have been exposed – but through years of anti-EU propaganda.

But for many other Leave voters it was due to domestic policies and choices that have been blamed on Brussels, or blamed on foreigners generally.

 

For now, the fact that the UK is leaving the European Union raises three simple questions for Ireland:

What is the likely future of the United Kingdom?

How does this future potentially affect Ireland?

And how should we react?

 

Consider the following:

  • An island nation, with a distinctive culture and identity, including its tradition of monarchy.
  • A nation that has given up aggressive imperialism and is now reliant on the USA as a military partner.
  • One of the world’s largest economies, with a welfare state.
  • A nation possessing one of the world’s “safe” currencies.
  • A trading nation, with investment in high-tech industries, selling its products across the world, but keeping strong control of immigration.
  • A stable democratic system with guaranteed civil liberties, with a dominant conservative party.
  • Co-operating on an inter-governmental basis with its neighbours, but with a history of not getting on with the “continental” states beside it.
  • A nation that rejects political unions or other close economic unions.

 

The nation I describe is Japan.

 

One possible Brexit future is for Britain to become more like Japan, in terms of going it alone.

This is a vision of Fortress Britain, a country that wants to trade with the world but does not want to share decision-making with any other country through co-operation or partnership, preferring strictly limited trading arrangements.

 

There are clearly some who are pro-Brexit who believe that the UK can pull up the drawbridge and have greater control over its borders, its laws and its money, as they put it.

 

But there are serious flaws with any such vision of Britain in “splendid isolation”.

 

First of all, it was telling that one of the first news items in response to Theresa May’s big reveal last week was not the Opposition reaction, but the reaction of the global currency markets.

A version of Brexit that stays close to the EU customs union and single market is good for business, and the currency markets respond favourably.

But the risk of a “no deal” scenario is greeted with panic and drops in the relative value of the Pound.

 

And this is where the comparison with Japan breaks down.

The UK economy is more globally integrated than Japan’s, and the Pound is a global currency.

The UK is part of European supply chains, some of them operating on a “just in time” basis.

The UK is primarily a services economy, with leading companies in finance, IT and communications, all of which require regulatory alignment and close integration with other countries’ markets in order to sell their wares.

 

A Fortress Britain could take back control of migration, but to what end?

What motivated the concern with migration?

 

Some surveys suggest the main fears about migration are about competition for jobs, concern about crime and access to housing.

 

Just before the June 2016 vote to leave the EU, UK unemployment was just under 5% and employment was nearly 75%.

Migrants clearly weren’t leaving many British people outside the jobs market.

 

Crime rates have been static or falling across the UK for a number of years with no evidence that recent migration has increased crime.

 

Housing is a problem, with familiar issues to here in terms of unaffordable housing.

But in the North of England, where large majorities of people voted Leave, pressure on housing is far less acute than it is in London and the South East of England.

 

None of these reasons is convincing for why so many people voted to leave the EU.

 

A more plausible explanation is that British people are dissatisfied with the status quo because a fifth of the UK population live in poverty.

1.5 million people are unable to afford the essentials of life and we have seen the soaring use of foodbanks in Britain in recent years.

Jeremy Corbyn is right to say that investment is needed across the UK to create decent jobs and better living conditions for all.

But that is not something that Fortress Britain can deliver.

And it is not fair to lay the blame for so-called “neo-liberal” policies at the door of the European Union.

The European single market has vibrant State industries alongside the private sector.

There is little or nothing in British Labour’s industrial strategies that could not be achieved within the EU.

There has been a right-wing turn in recent European policies, associated with the rise of conservative parties across Europe and not least the influence of the UK itself on the shape of the EU single market.

But the EU has also the stronger protections for workers and the environment out of any single market in the world.

A strong Labour government in the UK could help to enhance these protections and expand the social dimension of European co-operation.

 

UK Labour desire a future relationship that is very close to the EU, with a customs union to protect jobs and close alignment to the single market.

 

This type of future relationship may well be possible, as one outworking of Theresa May’s deal.

But in addition to the inevitable extra costs and delays of “friction” at the border, former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair has pointed out a profound political flaw in May’s Brexit deal.

She has tried to give Brexiteers a form of Brexit while minimising the economic damage.

This makes the UK a rule-taker instead of a rule-maker.

And having the theoretical ability to strike independent trade deals elsewhere will not soften this genuine loss of sovereignty for those who wanted to “take back control”.

 

This is the same problem that Jeremy Corbyn faces by trying to keep the UK close to the EU single market.

 

Another former Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has made the sensible suggestion of running citizens assemblies up and down the UK, in order to let all sides have their say, and to hear from experts, with the goal of “testing whether pro and anti-Brexit voters can find any common ground.”

Brown is right to identify that the UK is still deeply, bitterly divided on the issue of Europe, and that some way needs to be found to heal those divisions.

He believes that a second referendum must be carefully prepared for, to avoid a situation where, even if the UK people voted to Remain after all, there would be millions of Leave voters who would feel betrayed and embittered for all time.

 

The deal to exit the EU is what it is…

But I pay tribute to Irish ministers and diplomats who protected Irish interests.

 

The UK will pay around €41 billion.

€18.5bn in 2019 and 2020, during the transition, as a significantly discounted entry fee for full access to the EU’s customs union and single market.

The remainder in the following years towards projects that the UK agreed to fund, and their contribution to the pensions of UK civil servants working in Brussels and British MEPs.

It is hardly money for nothing, as the Brexiteers keep insisting.

Given that the UK actually spent over €900 billion in 2016, its contribution to the EU as part of the Withdrawal Agreement has been blown out of proportion by those hostile to the EU.

 

The Withdrawal Agreement protects the rights of EU citizens in the UK, and of UK citizens across Europe.

That provides additional legal certainty for Irish citizens in Britain and the British in Ireland.

We can’t assume that our historical agreements under the Common Travel Area would flawlessly fall into place once Brexit happens.

And we should remember that this agreement on rights is particularly important for Irish families where one or more family member is a British or EU national.

 

It is important to recall that we are not voting today in relation to that Future Relationship, we are simply being asked to endorse the orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU by March next year.

 

There are really only two deeply contentious aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement from my perspective.

One is our core concern, that there cannot be a hard border on the island of Ireland.

And secondly, the extent to which the Withdrawal Agreement constrains or limits the Future Relationship agreement is of concern to the most ardent Leave supporters.

 

In relation to Ireland, the negotiation process showed solidarity between member states of the EU.

Ireland’s concerns were well-flagged in advance, and the EU negotiation team has delivered a viable proposal from our perspective.

Our friends in the British Labour party and across Westminster have also listened and understood our serious concerns about the border, and I am grateful for their solidarity.

 

The bottom line is that we want people North and South of the border to continue to enjoy the biggest benefit of the Good Friday Agreement, which is the free and unfettered access to both jurisdictions.

This free and genuinely frictionless movement of people facilitates family and personal relationships, and it also facilitates doing business on a cross-border basis.

This has boosted prosperity on both sides of the border.

 

What made this possible was shared European law.

Brexit means that, for these benefits to continue, we must be certain to have a body of law that continues to facilitate the open border.

The transition period as the UK leaves the EU contains that legal certainty because existing EU laws continue to operate.

The Future Relationship agreement is expected to contain equivalent legal certainty to keep the border open.

Of course, that hasn’t been negotiated yet.

But in the unlikely event that the Future Relationship does not provide legal certainty.

Or that no Future Relationship agreement can be made at all.

We need to have a legally operable backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement as an insurance policy.

 

We have that in the document revealed last week, alongside a commitment to use our best efforts to ensure we never need to use that insurance policy.

 

Unionists do have a legitimate concern about the backstop, because it does single out Northern Ireland in certain respects.

But this has to be looked at in a measured way.

For centuries, the United Kingdom has treated both Scotland and Northern Ireland differently from England and Wales.

Different legislation and policies applies in each jurisdiction.

Devolution has enhanced regional differences.

The UK was never a unitary state where all parts had all the same laws.

It is not a radical suggestion that Northern Ireland might do some things differently in the interests of its people and businesses.

 

As it happens, Northern Ireland currently benefits from the all-island energy market under EU rules.

And the Withdrawal Agreement provides a legal basis for that to continue.

An all-island wholesale electricity market does not undermine anyone’s sovereignty, identity or constitutional preferences.

 

Northern Ireland currently benefits from all-island food health and safety arrangements.

For years now, live animals moving between Britain and Northern Ireland are tested before transport across the Irish Sea. This has never been raised as a constitutional issue before now.

If – and only if – the backstop is needed, this will be extended to other food products.

If our insurance policy is needed, Northern Ireland will remain in the EU customs union and subject to parts of the single market rules to the extent necessary to keep the border open.

That will create some paperwork East-West between Northern Ireland and Britain, if – and only if – the Future Relationship between the UK and EU is so distant that this is rendered necessary.

But the benefit to Northern Ireland’s people and businesses is that the backstop gives them free access to the entire EU market.

It is potentially a tremendous win-win scenario, but it will require political leadership in Northern Ireland to explain this potential.

At any rate, this is only hypothetical as we don’t yet know the shape of the Future Relationship for the whole UK.

 

There is a danger of countries playing constitutional politics over the Withdrawal Agreement.

We see that clearly with Spain threatening the agreement because it wants to undo British control over Gibraltar.

There is no such constitutional manoeuvring going on in the Irish case.

But equally we won’t accept a backwards move that would take away the tangible benefits of the Good Friday Agreement.

There is nothing in the Irish component of the Withdrawal Agreement that should deeply concern unionists – and I include unionists across all parties in Westminster.

The real and substantial sticking point is the question of whether the Withdrawal Agreement constrains or limits the Future Relationship agreement.

 

The simple answer is yes, it does.

The Withdrawal Agreement has close co-operation on customs built into it, which strongly signals close alignment on customs into the future.

 

Is that a problem?

For most people of most political persuasions, it is not a problem.

Deeper economic co-operation is happening all over the globe.

Countries everywhere are in customs unions and single market arrangements.

For example, in Southeast Asia, in Central America, in South America, in the Caribbean, in East Africa, Central Africa, West Africa and Southern Africa, through the Gulf Co-operation Council and in the Eurasian Customs Union.

Most of the world is in one or more customs and free trade areas.

The future UK-EU relationship will inevitably involve economic co-ordination.

Both sides have talked up an “ambitious” close relationship.

 

It is clearly in our best interest for East-West trade between Ireland and Britain to be as free and open as possible.

 

We would prefer a scenario where the British people got to vote again.

I tend to agree with Gordon Brown that not enough has been done to allow people across the UK to express their views and their frustrations.

Not enough has been done to counteract a media environment that has dripped poison about the EU for decades.

Not least through the toxic pen of former Foreign Secretary Johnson.

 

A significant number of people in the UK have serious doubts about the EU.

We do need to understand these doubts.

I don’t believe they are due to nationalist xenophobia.

I think they are largely because of domestic economic policies that have left far too many people behind, especially in the North of England, and in rural England.

And I think fuel has been poured on the fire of Euroscepticism by cynical public commentary over many years.

After a process of national deliberation, including business and civil society alongside ordinary citizens, we might see the kind of societal shift of attitudes that we have seen here through our own citizens’ assembly processes.

That in turn would make it possible to believe that a second referendum might indeed produce a very different result, not just a narrow victory for Remain that would leave behind too much bitterness and cynicism about politics.

 

There is nothing undemocratic about consulting the people a second time as long as something substantial has changed that might reasonably change people’s minds.

 

Two things have certainly changed.

Firstly, the level of general knowledge about the EU has grown.

Even leading politicians apparently knew little about the detail of the customs union or atomic energy co-operation or countless other details of the European Union.

They do now.

 

Secondly, there is a deal on the table.

It has its strengths and weaknesses. The downsides are very plain to see.

It is telling that many of the arch-Brexiteers only talk about the downsides, as they still fail to articulate any vision of how Britain can prosper outside of the EU.

In my view, that is because the UK cannot become another Japan… the UK economy does not produce the kinds of goods and services that would make a Fortress Britain model viable in global trade.

 

Enough has changed since June 2016 that it would be reasonable and sensible to ask the British people if they are sure that this is what they really want.

Who wins from Brexit?

Not the people of the UK.

They will almost certainly be poorer under even the most generous Future Relationship with the EU.

 

Clearly, certain wealthy individuals and organisations see greater opportunity outside the EU than inside it.

I fear that they will seek ways to undermine workers’ protections and environmental standards, which is something that we will have to solidly resist from an EU perspective.

 

The Withdrawal Agreement deal that is on the table is as good as it can be in the circumstances.

It is a sad loss for the European Union.

But we can hope that a process of reconciliation can occur within the UK post-Brexit.

We would certainly welcome the return of the UK people back as full members of the European Project at some point in the future.

And we would warmly welcome a second referendum, before the door is finally closed.

Perhaps after a postponement of the date to trigger Article 50.

 

As for this motion.

Labour will support it, as the best deal that could be negotiated in the circumstances we are in.

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