The People’s Vote risks becoming May’s lifeline

 

Now is the time to revoke Article 50

Theresa May has flogged a dead horse. She is now up against the rails. The EU won’t reopen negotiations on her Brexit plan and, even if they offered concessions on the “backstop” issue, it would not win parliamentary approval. The consensus in parliament also seems to be that a “no deal” exit from the EU would be disastrous. This leaves her with 3 options – to invite MPs to consider other exit routes, to endorse the call a new referendum or to revoke Article 50, leaving us to stay in the EU.

What is now abundantly clear is that Brexit in any form will be hugely damaging to Britain’s economy, prevent it being party to decisions which (if only for geographical reasons) impact on us, and distract government attention from addressing the valid grievances that led many people to vote to leave Europe. Thanks largely to the People’s Vote campaign and its effective lobbying of MPs, it is most unlikely that any alternative strategy to take Britain out of Europe through another door could secure majority backing in parliament.

This means that the real choice facing MPs when they are given a chance for a meaningful vote in the coming weeks must be between a referendum and revocation of Article 50. May, who habitually plays for time, seems bound to opt for a referendum in which she would stubbornly campaign for her plan. Any referendum risks re-opening divisions and prolonging the uncertainties that have put so many personal decisions and business initiatives on hold for two years.

The landmark decision of the European Court of Justice that Britain can unilaterally revoke Article 50 before 29th March 2019 and stay in the EU under current terms opens the door for MPs to opt for a dignified and very simple way out of the current impasse.

Paradoxically, if the People’s Vote campaign continues its present strategies, it could inadvertently throw a life-line to the PM and prolong the Brexit process indefinitely, with no certainty as to the outcome, especially if those seeking to leave the EU repeat their skilful use of illegal campaigning methods.

There is a window of opportunity in the continuation of the meaningful vote debate to get majority support for an amendment in favour of revoke. The chances of success seem good but would be all the surer if the People’s Vote campaign immediately changes tactics from calling on MPs to back a referendum to putting pressure on the leaders of both major parties to admit that, now they know they know that any Brexit is self-harming for Britain, they cannot in all honesty continue to lead us and their MPs down a dead-end Brexit path.

Theresa May has put up a good fight for her Chequers plan but the time has come for her to tell voters that, even if Norwegianised or Canadianised, all the evidence suggests that any Brexit would leave Britain weaker and more isolated. Jeremy Corbyn must also know that his call for a change of government so that he can reopen Brexit negotiations with the EU is a non-starter.

By calling on the government to revoke Artlcle 50, MPs would at one stroke bring an immediate end to uncertainties, solve the Irish border issue, ensure the continuation of frictionless trade with our biggest and nearest trading partners, restore business confidence, generate more resources for addressing our country’s worst woes, and enable Britain to continue to be an influential part of an institution that, for all its warts, has helped to assure the longest peace Europe has known for centuries and done much to foster productive collaboration on many issues of common concern from climate change to medicines and travel.

While there are bound to be shouts of betrayal from those who are determined to leave Europe – and even some French style protests – these would be drowned out by the huge sigh of relief from the general public when they find that their lives return to normal.

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The only way to stop 3 more years of uncertainty

 

Approving May’s plan will prolong the uncertainty and divisiveness that has mucked up our lives since 2016 for at least another 3 years, and a “no-deal” would probably be worse. The only way of letting our lives return to normal and having the government focus on Britain’s pressing domestic problems is to immediately stop the withdrawal process.

 

Our Prime Minister claims she has done her duty. This may be true in the sense that, with great tenacity, she has secured EU approval of a Withdrawal Agreement.

Normally, however, a Prime Minister’s duty is to lead a country in directions that are clearly in the interests of its citizens. Instead of addressing the social, economic and environmental crises that all parties admit must be the top priority of any British government, she has invested all her energies in pursuing an elusive goal of “taking back control” of our affairs from the European Union. She has pushed ahead stubbornly with her deal although she knows full-well, from her own government’s analyses, that this will leave us poorer and less able to afford badly needed domestics reforms.

For the past two years, she has propagated uncertainty; deepened the cracks in society opened by the 2016 referendum; presided over a collapse in the value of the pound; induced massive capital flight; undermined business confidence; weakened the ties that bind the UK together, and subverted our cooperation with our neighbours on security and crime prevention. In her dutiful pursuit of the fantasy that Britain can “have its cake and eat it” relationship with the EU, she has neglected all other essential duties of government.

There is nothing concrete to show for her efforts except an expensive divorce agreement that abdicates our having a meaningful say in how Europe is run and fobs us off with a non-committal statement of intent on the nature of our future relationship with our 27 neighbours.

Sadly, the opposition has neglected its responsibility to offer a better strategy.

Now Mrs May is asking us – MPs and the general public – to endorse her, literally, half-baked deal.  If we give her our approval, she will put her plan back into the negotiating oven for at least another dreadful 3 years of self-harming uncertainty before we know the final outcome. The only thing that we can be sure about is that, as a “third country”, Britain will be in a still weaker negotiating position than it has been since it invoked Article 50 and, after more prolonged wrangling, is bound to be worse off than it is now or was in 2016.

What we all need now is an early end to uncertainty so that we can get on with our own lives; put behind us the artificial divisions that have split families, communities and political parties apart; and work together to make our country truly great. The only option that offers this is to extend our EU membership.

There may be things that we don’t much like about the European Union but, if we look back to before the referendum campaign, we weren’t passionate “leavers” or “remainers”, largely because the European institutions and their policies did not intrude negatively on how, as individuals, we led our daily lives. For most people our membership of the EU was a not an issue of much concern.

Over the past two years lots of us have come to appreciate how successfully we are working with our neighbouring countries in addressing issues with trans-boundary implications. This goes far beyond the “frictionless” trading arrangements of the single market. It covers human and livestock diseases; food safety and access to health services across Europe; environmental and climate change policies; air, rail and sea safety; crime prevention and security; scientific research, and aspects of foreign policy where, speaking with a single voice, we carry more weight.

The greatest flaw in Theresa May’s plan is that it is founded on the false assumption that we have to leave the EU to be able to control our borders, fund the NHS, get fair justice, reform our agricultural and fisheries policies, protect citizens’ rights, maintain the integrity of the UK and keep an open border in Ireland. There is ample room for doing all of this while still being an EU member.

There is absolutely no reason, as May claims in her letter to all of us, that Brexit has to be “settled” before we can focus on “keeping our economy strong, and making sure that every community shares in prosperity; securing our NHS for the future, giving every child a great start in life, and building the homes that families need; tackling the burning injustices that hold too many people back, and building a country that truly works for everyone”. This is a red herring: whether we are in or out of the EU is immaterial to the achievement of these aspirations.

The only way to create the certainty that we badly need for our lives to return quickly to normal is for us to call on the government to admit in all honesty that they have driven us up a dead-end road and to immediately stop the withdrawal process, thereby leaving the UK to stay as an influential member of the EU.

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Can the UK stop Brexit?

 

On 27th November, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) is to consider the Scottish request for clarification as to whether the UK can unilaterally stop the Brexit process and retain its EU membership. If the Court confirms that revocation of Article 50 is permissible, this could have major implications for the Brexit process.

The first paragraph of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty says that “A member state which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intent”.  It is not clear whether, at any time before the 2-year period allowed for reaching agreement expires, a country can go back to the European Council and convey its wish to abandon negotiations and stay a member.

A cross-party group of 6 Scottish politicians (MPs, MEPs and MSPs) has received the backing of the Court of Session to seek a definitive ruling on this issue from the European Court of Justice. In spite of vigorous attempts by the UK government to block this move the request will come before the ECJ on 27 November 2018, possibly the same day that an EU Summit may be convened to approve the UK’s draft Withdrawal Agreement.

It is surprising how little media attention has been attached to this issue, given that an ECJ judgment that supports the possibility that the UK could automatically continue to be a EU member country by revoking its Article 50 invocation could have far-reaching consequences for the Brexit process. There was a full-scale article in the Guardian on 8 November but otherwise coverage of the process has been confined mainly to Scottish newspapers.

A positive ruling by the Court would have at least 2 major implications – first on the choices open to MPs when a draft Brexit deal is submitted to them for a “meaningful vote”; and secondly on the choice of questions to be put to voters should there be a People’s Vote.

The Prime Minister has been adamant that there are only two options open to the cabinet and to parliament – either to approve the draft agreement or to “crash out” of the EU without a deal. By painting a grim picture of the no-deal scenario, she is hoping to find a majority of MPs voting for her deal even if would be hugely costly and damaging for Britain. If staying in the EU would be an option open to Britain, then MPs would be bound insist on being able to vote on this third possible route.

The promoters of the proposal for a People’s Vote, which is now gathering momentum, are arguing that the ballot paper must include a “remain” option. This would provide voters with a means of expressing their aspirations, but it would only be of practical value if there was to be a real opportunity to retain true EU membership.

Theresa May must be heaving a huge sigh of relief that her technical team has at last been able to arrive at a draft withdrawal agreement with the European Commission. She has sold it to her Cabinet and is naturally intent on selling it to her Cabinet and pushing it through parliament as quickly as possible.

As long as the issue is awaiting a ruling from the ECJ it is difficult to see how MPs can vote meaningfully. Indeed, the main purpose of the Court of Session judges in forwarding the group’s request directly to the ECJ in September rather than to the Supreme Court in London was to secure early clarity on “the options open to MPs in the lead up to what is now an inevitable vote”. No doubt, though this will be hugely frustrating for the Prime Minister, there will be many MPs who will call for the postponement of any Commons vote on the draft agreement while Britain’s entitlement remains sub judice until the ECJ has issued its ruling.

Should the ECJ decide that unilateral revocation of the EU is possible, the knee-jerk reaction of the Government would be to appeal. An appeal, however, would take time, automatically imply a need for a further delay in the “meaningful vote”, and probably require seeking the approval by EU governments of a lengthening of the 2-year period for an agreement, now ending on 29th March 2019.

In the meantime, public support seems to be growing for a People’s Vote on the deal to such an extent that it is unlikely that “10 Downing Street” can continue to rule out a second referendum.  The signs are that “the will of the people” has begun to shift, now that the stark realities of Brexit are beginning to hit them and more people are seeing that any Brexit deal will leave us worse off than we now are. Mrs May must be bound to be irked that, just a week ago, the Scottish Parliament formally endorsed the call for a People’s Vote!

Perhaps it is time for the leaders of Britain’s two big parties to take advantage of what seems to be an inevitable pause to ask themselves (given their current knowledge of the huge negative implications of any Brexit deal for the British economy, our standing in the world, and our enjoyment of continued peace in Europe) whether they should not, in all honesty, advise us – if the ECJ permits it – to stay in Europe and have a full say in its future. Only if May and Corbyn have the guts to come clean with voters about the reality of any Brexit deal or no deal can they secure themselves an honoured place in our history.

This is a moment for statesmanship and the long-term view of what is best for all of Britain – including Scotland!

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From Surrealism to Pragmatism

 

Surrealism was a word that emerged quite recently to describe art forms that seek to represent the subconscious.  We now come to use surreal in relation to the bizarre or irrational behaviour of individuals and institutions. When applied to institutions, surreal often implies a short-lasting uncharacteristic aberration from what we would expect to be their normal ways of operation.

The Brexit process has spawned an epidemic of surreal institutional behaviour because there is no rational explanation for continuing to pursue a process which our own government tell us will make our country – and many of us – less well off; that will rob Britain of the fiscal resources required to make badly needed public investments in the better services and infrastructure that voters want; that already puts at risk the unity of our Kingdom, and that wounds the institutions that have successfully nurtured the longest period of peace that Europe has enjoyed for centuries.

Why is it that, rather than face up to reality – to call a spade a spade – both of Britain’s major parties engage in a phony battle, indulging in endless fantasies, fudges and ambiguities? This is because the leave/remain divide slices through their parties and so their leaders cannot afford to alienate either remainers or leavers as this would endanger their chances of winning the next election.

While this behaviour might make sense from a narrow electoral perspective, it is a dangerous game that is bound to eventually betray voters and MPs on one side or the other within each party when negotiations on our future relationship with Europe move tardily into a decisive phase.

The call for a People’s Vote is a strong expression of voters’ lack of confidence in the Tory and Labour parties’ capacity to reach a deal with Europe that is in the best interests of people in all corners of the Realm. It is also an admission that what was the will of the people in June 2016 may no longer be so, now that we have got to know the scale of the problems to which we would be exposed by leaving the EU, especially in the case of a “no deal”.

Both May and Corbyn know that all the evidence accumulated since the June 2016 referendum tells them and us that the disengagement process has already made the country poorer than it would otherwise have been and that any Brexit, soft or hard, will compromise our long-term growth. It is abundantly clear that there is no way that either party could negotiate a deal that would be better than the present arrangement, even if this is not perfect. There is an urgent need to break the stale-mate and to put an end to pervasive uncertainty.

The only honest way out of this surreal situation is for Corbyn and May to grasp the nettle and jointly admit that, even if their hard-liners will scream and punch the air like spoilt children, they agree that the only realistic option now facing us is to revoke Article 50. This requires great courage on their part but to do anything different seems bound to lead us into the disaster of either a bad deal or no deal, no matter which main party would be in charge.

To endow it with legitimacy, this move could be made subject to confirmation by a People’s vote which seems bound to be favourable if the “revoke” option is championed by the leaders of all parties except for UKIP. And May and Corbyn would be able to live with a clear conscience, having acted bravely in the public interest rather than given in to the ceaseless bullying of party extremists.

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Has your life been damaged by EU Laws? The Scots don’t seem to think so

The last time that I wore my kilt was a couple of months ago in celebration of our baby grand-daughter’s christening. I like to wear the kilt on such occasions, having been born in Scotland and feeling proud of my Scottish ancestry. Hugh Trevor-Roper, the historian, may be right in claiming that today’s kilts are a relatively recent invention, but whether this is so or not doesn’t really matter: kilts and bagpipes are recognised around the world as symbols of Scotland, its history and its people!

Some 62% of my fellow Scots voted in the June 2016 EU referendum to remain in the European Union. Almost two years earlier, a somewhat smaller majority of Scots (55%) voted in another referendum against Scottish independence. This could suggest that Scottish people are generally happier about their relationship with Brussels than with Westminster.

It would be going too far to claim that both these results are entirely related to how Scots interpret the issue of sovereignty but this clearly played an important role in determining voter behaviour.

Sovereignty

“Sovereignty” is an ancient word which has been given a new lease of life by the EU referendum campaign. The reclaiming of sovereignty was portrayed by the proponents of the “leave” campaign as a highly desirable outcome because it would enable Great Britain to “take back control” of all aspects of government that it had “surrendered” to the European Commission. The implicit assertion was that the bureaucrats in Brussels had somehow usurped our sovereignty and so we had lost control over our own affairs.

Although “sovereignty” conveys a sense of absolute authority, such as that clamed by the supreme leader of North Korea, it is now normal for most modern governments to share elements of their authority with other entities when they consider that this is in the best interests of their citizens. Sovereignty is the power and authority of a government to do things and is only useful so far as it is used. Every time a government enters into a treaty or power-sharing agreement it uses that power and binds itself for the future. The UK is a member of possibly 3,000 international bodies, each of which it entrusts to take actions on its behalf.

The concept of sharing of sovereignty is central to the British government’s devolution of certain of its powers to Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland (as in the case of local government or education) while retaining authority over such issues as defence and foreign affairs which all parties agree can best be handled at UK level.

When Britain joins an international agency, it effectively endows it with a slice of its national power for the purpose of engaging with other countries on an equal footing to create and sustain shared institutions which carry more weight than single countries working alone. This can be exemplified, for instance, by the UK’s membership of NATO whose Military Committee effectively assumes command of part of Britain’s armed forces when it engages in joint operations or exercises.

Such selective pooling of elements of sovereignty by member governments is fundamental to the smooth operation of the 28-nation European Union. If the European Commission could not count on all its members to adopt similar standards when trading with each other, in managing environmental or health threats that are not confined by national borders, or in imposing sanctions on other nations, it would achieve very little.

The extent to which power has been shared in this way with other EU members is defined in the Treaty of Rome and its amendments.  Sharing of authority can add to the aggregate power of an individual country to safeguard the interests of its citizens, for instance through protecting their health through applying agreed standards on food safety or enabling us to have ready access to free health services across the region.

EU Law

For the EU to function smoothly and fairly, it approves regulations and directives. Most of these relate to the functioning of the single market and to matters with cross-boundary dimensions. They emerge from a thorough consultative process involving all member governments, represented by the concerned ministries. They are usually subject to the approval of the European Parliament in which all member governments are represented by democratically elected MEPs. Once issued, governments are required to implement EU laws and to bring equivalent national laws into line with them. Members can, however, challenge them if they can show that they are not consistent with EU treaties or plead for exemptions. Thus, the UK retains its independent currency and is not part of the Schengen Agreement that cuts border checks on people moving between signatory countries.

Any free trading arrangement between countries – whether it is the EU single market or one of the bilateral deals that the present British government aspires to negotiate with other countries – is necessarily based on agreed standards, not related only to specific goods but also to the conditions under which they are produced: this is to assure fair play. Trade agreements also require dispute resolution procedures to make sure that the parties adhere to the agreed rules. In the case of the EU, disputes are handled by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) from which the “leave” campaign proposed withdrawing. Yet, if Britain aspires to continue trading freely with Europe after Brexit, as the Government has stated, surely it will have to either rely on the ECJ (but probably without being able to appoint a judge) or create a similar parallel mechanism at considerable inconvenience to the remaining EU members.

The Case for Regulation

Most of us have mixed feelings about accepting and conforming with laws wherever they originate. Populists like to play on our natural tendency to resent regulation. In practice, we tend to be law-abiding unless we feel confident that we can get away with minor infringements. Many of us are happy to exceed the speed limit when we think that we won’t get caught, but, when we are warned of a speed camera, we take our foot off the accelerator! Few of us, however, would call for the abolition of speed limits or indeed of many of the other regulations that together contribute to the rule of law.

Whether we remain in the EU or leave it, our history and geographical juxtaposition as well as our desire for lasting peace make it of paramount importance that we maintain a benign and trusting relationship with our neighbouring European countries. The European Union has constructed, with our full engagement, a complex but generally effective institutional framework for managing this relationship, which necessarily must be protected by rules overseen by a jointly operated system of justice.

Scotland strongly welcomes the current arrangements with the EU and does not feel threatened by excessive regulation.  Now, more than two years after the referendum, there also seems to be a growing recognition amongst the majority of English voters that the bulk of EU law as applied in the UK is benign and tends to reinforce fairness in individual and corporate behaviour.

Perhaps the best way to arrive at a personal verdict on whether the EU has intruded unduly on our sovereignty is for each of us to ask ourselves whether we have actually experienced any instances in which we feel that our own lives have been negatively impacted by an intrusive reach of EU law into the UK. Similarly, can we point to specific UK-related cases handled by the ECJ in which we sense there has been a miscarriage of justice?

Irreverent Afterthoughts

One of the oddest things about Brexit is that those who have called most loudly for the reclamation of British sovereignty, have been the first to seek to avoid the engagement of parliament – where most of us would claim our sovereignty resides – in the process of disengaging from the EU. They have also sought to brush aside the objections to Brexit that have been raised by the devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast – a disdain that seems bound to fuel latent separatist tendencies and hasten the break-up of our United Kingdom.

If Brexit should eventually happen, one could imagine that a vindictive prime minister might be tempted to decide that the Scots must be punished for their disloyalty, perhaps by forbidding us from expressing our nationalism through wearing our kilts!

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