Author Archives: Nick Hopkinson

Lib Dems can make gains if we stand up for closer relations with the EU

Last week I had a chance conversation with a leading national ‘expert’ on Brexit. There was much talk about the state of UK-European Union (EU) relations including the Northern Ireland Protocol. I enjoy discussing wonkery, but in light of public support for Brexit reaching an all time low and increasingly articulated public anger, I raised public opinion. “Forget public opinion” came the answer. I was taken aback.

The remark reinforces suspicions about the conspiracy of public silence amongst political leaders, and seemingly some opinion formers, about Brexit. With the tide of public opinion turning and some journalists still discussing Brexit, politicians are missing a political opportunity if they do not reflect the growing breadth and depth of public anger.

Although politicians have been right to focus on the pandemic and the tragic implications of Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine in recent years, downplaying or staying silent about the European Union (EU) is increasingly misplaced. To advocate closer EU relations is not to refight old Brexit battles, but to address the ever present need to promote our security and prosperity and manage our most important international relationship with our European neighbours.

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To help defeat coronavirus, we must campaign for a 2 year extension to the EU Transition

Wall to wall coverage of Brexit has understandably given way to our urgent need to defeat the coronavirus pandemic. But as the 30 June deadline to extend the negotiations on our future EU relationship rapidly approaches, the fallout from Brexit is again rising up the political agenda.

The UK faces a likely double whammy, one a public health and economic crisis, and the other an entirely unnecessary government-made fiasco. Government machinery is now almost entirely consumed by the urgent effort to defeat COVID-19. We simply cannot afford to crash out of global arrangements, notably trade, without an EU agreement, whilst at the same time as trying to defeat the pandemic. As former Chancellor Alistair Darling stated “It’s madness to contemplate shooting yourself in the foot on an entirely man-made political decision at a time when you don’t need to do that”. Sir Ed Davey and others have accordingly called for an extension to the negotiations.

The COVID-19 crisis though provides excellent cover for the Conservative Government and ideological EUphobes to progress their dream of the hardest of Brexits. The adverse effects of crashing out without a deal could fairly easily be confused with and be blamed on adverse effects of the pandemic, rather than attributed to the Government’s damaging EUphobic policy itself.

Chief UK negotiator, David Frost, tweeted on 16 April:

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Prospects for an early General Election and a referendum on the terms of Brexit  

In the previous three posts in this series, I examined the Brexit legislative process, prospects for the EU negotiations, and the state of public opinion and Labour on Brexit. Lastly, what are the prospects for a referendum on the terms of any deal and an early General Election stemming from the ongoing Brexit crisis?

Nigel Farage recently toyed with the possibility of a ‘second’ referendum. Whilst ostensibly suggesting it might settle the Brexit debate for a generation, his real motivation is to have a referendum before the poor withdrawal deal being negotiated becomes obvious to a substantial majority of voters, and while the two largest parties maintain their ‘have your cake and eat it too’ support for Brexit. Some argue, perhaps even more importantly, that a referendum allows Farage another chance to be in the national spotlight, perhaps again as UKIP leader.

Posted in Europe / International and Op-eds | 19 Comments

Fighting Brexit: public opinion and cross-party co-operation

In the previous two posts in this series, I examined the legislative process and prospects for the EU negotiations. Our challenge is how to shape public opinion and move parliamentarians from other political parties to build an overwhelming national will to stop this Brexit madness, and in so doing attract more support for ourselves.

We can still stop Brexit. We can withdraw unilaterally our intention to leave the EU before 29 March 2019. Lord John Kerr, former head of the Diplomatic Service, has said as much, whilst Professor Sir Alan Ashwood has argued it “takes two to tango.”. UKlegalfuture

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Prospects for the EU negotiations

This is the second part of a series Brexit is a luxury for the few. The EU is a necessity for the many. Part 1 can be found here.

The negotiations with EU27 are the point at which Brexit fantasies meet reality. Allegations that the EU needs us more than we need them have been exposed as false as the Government jettisons previously trumpeted ‘red lines’. The Phase 1 joint report of the UK and EU negotiators  shows the Government has given into virtually every EU demand.

This should be no surprise as the negotiations were never going to be one of equals. Instead of ‘winning’ 97% of votes in the EU Council, we now find ourselves alone pitted against a group 11 times our economic size. Past EU accession negotiations were similarly asymmetrical. Candidate countries wishing to join the EU had to accept some 80,000 pages of the aquis communautaire (the EU’s accumulated legislation and judicial rulings) virtually in toto. The best candidates might reasonably hope to secure were minor derogations and some longer transitional periods. Leaving the EU is the accession process in reverse.

Forecasting is a fool’s game but we can be fairly sure the UK will continue to be outgunned. There are any number of outcomes from the negotiations but arguably the leading current alternatives are extremes: Norway Plus or no deal. The EU has offered the UK either the Norwegian model (essentially Single Market including payments to the EU Budget and following EU rules but no participation in the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy) or the Canadian model (virtually no goods tariffs and limited services access but no payments to EU budget and no jurisdiction by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in areas of EU competence).

The May Government has ruled out remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union. Replicating the Canada-EU deal is problematic given services constitute 80% of our economy. So David Davis concocted a have your cake and eat it too Canada Plus Plus Plus option. For the EU, this is unacceptable as the free movement of services, capital, goods and workers are indivisible.

The Council guidelines provide the framework for the next phase of negotiations. By Easter, it is possible a transitional (or implementation) period will be agreed to the end of 2020 (when the EU’s current multiyear financial framework ends). This is slightly less than the two years the UK Government is requesting. Accepting all current EU rules and payments during the transitional period will, it is believed, be enough to prevent (at least temporarily) the exodus of more corporate operations from the UK. However, any agreed transitional period does not mean the end of the economic and regulatory cliff edge – it merely delays it if the UK opts for anything less integrative than the Norwegian model.  

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Brexit is a luxury for the few – The EU is a necessity for the many

2018 is the year we need to #stopbrexit. Opposition to Brexit throughout 2017 was remarkably constant and evenly split. Private polling however suggests some ‘Releavers’ (effectively the softer remain half) have rejoined hard Remainers, and there is now a small percentage of ‘Bregretters’. Some leading pollsters argue 60% plus opposition to Brexit is needed for six consecutive months for enough Parliamentarians to start speaking out.

So the current direction of travel is towards Brexit even though some leading groups, notably half of EU27 ambassadors and High Commissioners in London, reportedly believe Brexit won’t happen. The May minority government has been longer lasting than many anticipated and to date has been able to progress Brexit legislation relatively unscathed. However, Brexit can still be reversed so the real question is how we might do so.

In this four part series, I shall briefly examine legislative developments and the upcoming timetable, prospects for the EU negotiations, mobilising public and political opinion against Brexit, and the prospects for a referendum on the terms.

To date in Parliament, there has been one significant victory with the narrow passage of Dominic Grieve’s Amendment 7 to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. Clause 9 of the Bill is now “subject to the prior enactment of a (separate) statute by Parliament approving the final terms of withdrawal”. This presents Parliament with additional opportunities to shape the terms of departure, including possibly to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union, and to provide for a referendum on the terms. The recently relatively quiet hard Brexiters could also cause trouble for the Government on the £40 billion settling of accounts. However, it appears the ideological EUphobes are ready to accept Brexit at any price as long as they secure their long-cherished ‘Independence’ day.

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May’s hard Brexit is dead. Now let’s bury Brexit

Brexiters claim that 82% of voters supporting the Tories and Labour validated Brexit in last week’s General Election. This has a grain of truth in it. However subsequent polls found issues such as health, the economy, and security were more important to voters. Furthermore, the election marked a return to two party politics in which smaller parties, including ours, were squeezed. A vote for Labour was not necessarily a vote for its ambiguous Brexit stance, but arguably one for hope and an end to Tory austerity.

Shielded from many by her two former advisers and campaign managers, yet at the same time vulnerable to Tory ideological Europhobes, May’s closet premiership progressed an empty Hard Brexit. Instead of trying to unite a divided country after the 2016 referendum by reaching out to the 48% voting remain, May divided the country further by progressing a Hard Brexit which few voted for. Fully aware that half of voters wanted to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union as do most businesses, she seemed unbothered about harming the economy for the sake of meeting unrealistic immigration targets which were consistently missed when she was Home Secretary. Businesses could only engage with Government Ministers if they were enthusiastic about Brexit’s (unknown) opportunities. Her General Election bid for a personal blank cheque on Brexit (and seemingly everything else), possibly along the lines of the Canada-EU deal, left the electorate cold. So last week the people called time on her ‘bunker’ Brexit. So too it appears has business, her Cabinet, and parliamentarians.

A weakened May is now in discussion with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to prop up her minority Government. Meanwhile her Brexit secretary makes contradictory statements saying last Friday that the Government has lost its mandate for leaving the Single Market and Customs Union whilst implying the opposite on Radio 4’s Today. However, the DUP wants to avoid a hard Irish border, a demand which appears incompatible with the Tory manifesto pledge to leave the EU customs union. Similarly, the Scottish Conservatives want an ‘open’ Brexit, which appears to conflict with the Tory manifesto pledge to leave the EU Single Market. The two, with 10 and 13 seats respectively, effectively could each veto a Hard Brexit. But let us not forget the newly emboldened, but hitherto pusillanimous, pro-European Tories. Under the new parliamentary arithmetic, a handful of them could also frustrate Hard Brexit.

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May’s Brexit will create a weak and unstable United Kingdom

Voters in next month’s general election are being asked to support Theresa May’s ‘strong and stable’ leadership in the Brexit negotiations. What voters may in fact be choosing is a weak and unstable United Kingdom. Inflation, first prompted by the 15% fall in sterling after last year’s vote to leave the European Union (EU), will continue to erode real standards of living. The drip drip of foreign firms reallocating future investment and jobs outside the United Kingdom will continue. As a result Government tax revenue will decline and Tory austerity will last longer. The Scottish Government will progress a second …

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The campaign against Brexit continues

So far a majority in the House of Commons supports the advice of the British people to leave the European Union (EU). The Government, elected by 25% of voters, continues to impose its destructive hard Brexit vision on the 48% and many leavers who wanted to remain in the Single Market. We also made a decision in the 1975 referendum, and then by a far larger majority, to remain. Taken together this suggests there is no ‘settled will’ as to how we wish to associate with our European neighbours and largest export market. Democracy is much more than just one or two votes. There is no finality in any democracy. When a political party loses an election, it does not stop arguing for what it believes in. Given the losers of the 1975 referendum did not stop trying to reverse that decision, why should remainers, who are also patriots, be asked to stand down now?

We have an unelected Prime Minister speaking outside Parliament proposing what she knows to be a half-baked sketch for Brexit which is not best for Britain. The White Paper isn’t a plan either – it’s a poorly drafted wish list of desired outcomes. She says she wants a good deal with the EU. Yet Lib Dems know any deal the Government does or doesn’t conclude will not be good enough. If leaving the EU were such a good policy, the Government wouldn’t have been so afraid to subject it to full Parliamentary scrutiny.

Brexiters perpetrate a misleading, if not self-delusional, narrative on the economy and particularly trade. It is true the “sky has not fallen in” on the economy. However, the past is no guide to future performance. The last 7 months is a short time frame, and shows we are still benefiting from being in the EU Single Market. But much investment in the UK is on hold, and some financial firms are already relocating some operations out of the UK. Brexiters downplay the 15% depreciation in the pound but let’s see how the Just About Managing (JAMs) and others enjoy the resulting 3% inflation, higher energy prices and forecast decline in real living standards as Brexit bites.

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Why oppose Brexit?

I was asked recently to come up with some points which might be helpful when campaigning against Brexit. I wrestle constantly with finding a compelling narrative which cuts through a mind set which seems to trap half the population. I hope nevertheless some of the following (probably familiar) wording why Brexit is bad for Britain may be of use:

To preserve and promote British prosperity: The pound’s 15% collapse since the referendum is forecast to result in 3-4% inflation next year affecting our living standards.

To preserve and promote British exports: Outside the EU, our access to our major export market will be impaired by tariff and non-tariff barriers. Foreign investment (and jobs) will gradually decline as profit margins are eroded. As part of the EU, we have the best trade deal. The Nissan ‘sweetheart deal’ must be extended to all firms. Alone the UK, now the world’s seventh largest economy with 2% of global GDP, will have less weight in international trade negotiations with our far larger partners.

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Tories trash trade and we’re getting a pounding

Our future trade relations are the major battleground in the Brexit process. Unfortunately the public debate on trade remains poor, fuelled by the Brexiteers’ misleading, if not self-delusional, narrative of how the global world trading system works.

Brexiteers tell us the EU is more dependent upon us because we import their cars, cheeses and wines so we shall secure a good deal. When Brexiteers are reminded about our large trade deficit, International Trade Minister Fox blames our “fat and lazy” businessmen. Brexiteers argue we shall be free to conclude our own trade deals. However, a free trade deal with the EU will afford less market access than what we enjoy now as part of the Single European Market. It is no wonder why business organisations have responded with an open letter asking the Government to ensure we retain full Single Market access.

The UK will not have the upper hand in trade negotiations because 44% of our trade is with the EU whereas we account for only 17% of EU trade. With only 2% of world GDP compared with the EU’s 22% of world GDP, it is no wonder why US Trade Representative Mike Froman stated in the Financial Times on 30th October 2015:

Washington is not particularly in the market for a trade agreement with a single nation like the UK … it is absolutely clear that Britain has a greater voice at the trade table being part of the EU (and) part of a larger economic entity.

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Pledge to rejoin EU needs to be matched by EU Impact Fund

Tim Farron has rightly pledged we should campaign to take Britain back into the EU in the next general election. Should the election take place earlier than expected, we may still be an EU member, and should propose to withdraw from the Article 50 process.

In either case, it would not be politically credible to advocate reinstating or maintaining EU membership without proposing major domestic initiatives on immigration. The overall Remain campaign failed to a considerable degree because it did not factor in concerns, whether real or imagined, about immigration. The voices of the, largely, English hinterland must be heeded. Any Lib Dem call to rejoin or remain in the EU should therefore be accompanied by proposals to alleviate the perceived and in many cases, real, impact of immigration.

Pressures on housing, education, health and other social services can only be attributed in part to immigration. Ageing, internal migration, austerity and underinvestment together are often the more salient causes. Free movement from the EU accounts for just under half of all net migration and is the price of access to the Single EU market. Ending free movement within the EU (including from Ireland and returning UK nationals) will therefore not substantially reduce immigration, a point of mine which Dan Hannan MEP agreed during a referendum debate. If the diagnosis of our problems is wrong, then the prescription of leaving the EU will not cure them. 

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EU Referendum: Some reflections from the campaign trail

In the past couple of months, I have given some 30 talks and debates at schools, universities and community groups in Greater London and the South East making the case for remaining in the EU. With little over a month remaining before the referendum, an event which could profoundly change our country for the worse, now might be a good time to brainstorm with fellow campaigners on how we might best proceed.

Leavers know their strength is to appeal to gut emotion and take advantage of widespread lack of knowledge of the EU after decades of poor Conservative and Labour leadership and much media misinformation on the issue. Making the case for Remain is complex and is not easily communicated in soundbytes, nor does its often technical arguments make good headlines. Arguing we have the best British trade deal through our EU membership is hardly stirring. Leavers’ emotional appeal to nationalism, identity and our glorious past is. If we are to win the hearts and minds of the middle third, we need to inject emotion as well.

Catherine Bearder MEP is absolutely right not to cede the patriotic high ground to Eurosceptics. Remainers are patriots too because we know remaining in the EU is in our national interest. The difference is that the Leavers’ nationalism is atavistic whereas ours is inclusive and positive. I regularly use the line “Leavers want to take their country back, we want to take our country forward!”

Leavers argue we cannot tell the future. Whilst this is true, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of agreeing with them. Professional forecasters, whether economists or weathermen, are needed to help companies and individuals plan and minimise risk. Forecasters are not scaremongering. The referendum is already causing uncertainty and a downturn in the economy, notably in investment. The status quo of EU membership is the safer option. We know what remain looks like (the present), but Leavers cannot describe, let alone agree, what out looks like. Can the leavers name one study which concludes we would be better off out? When interviewed by Andrew Neil, Kate Hoey MP couldn’t.

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EU Referendum: Let’s answer the question

The European Referendum question asks “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” Voters are not being asked whether we accept David Cameron’s renegotiation proposals or the (draft) European Council Agreement. Nor are we being asked our opinion on the crises in the Eurozone and Schengen areas.

Just as Wilson’s 1975 renegotiation was promptly forgotten during the 1975 referendum campaign, we need to put Cameron’s renegotiation behind us. Both were risky exercises to paper over splits within their respective parties. Although Cameron’s renegotiation is subject to greater public scrutiny than in 1975, the referendum question does not ask us to unpick, let alone approve, it. The Leavers cite the Eurozone and Schengen crises as main reasons why we should leave the EU, yet we are not members of either group. How can we leave groups we aren’t part of?

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