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European Union Withdrawal Negotiations

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 5th March 2019.

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Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour

The debate is significant, as we are here to express united opposition to a no-deal Brexit. The voices of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly will join together to make clear our opposition to an outcome that would damage our economy, communities and society. The UK is possibly on the brink of leaving the EU. During negotiations, the prospect of a no-deal Brexit has loomed, but a no-deal scenario should have been ruled out of negotiations. I do not accept the argument that that scenario has been necessary to demonstrate a level of resolve or seriousness.

I also do not think that anyone who has been involved in the negotiations has treated them as a game. Everyone can see that any attempt by the UK to use brinkmanship would result only in self-inflicted harm. The argument that it would be just as bad for the EU is thin. The 27 countries would still be a powerful group, as far as trading, international relationships and influence are concerned, while the UK would be left isolated. From an international point of view, we would be the country that had failed to reach an agreement with the EU—a trading bloc that is enormously attractive to other countries—although we had been negotiating with the huge advantage of having already been aligned. That hardly makes us look competent.

A no-deal exit would have an immediate impact on people’s daily lives. It would mean having no transition period. Prices in shops would shoot up as we moved to World Trade Organization rules. Our own trading goods might be surplus, and food stocks would rot. Travelling to the EU would become bureaucratic and drawn out, and there is still no clarity on how flights would be dealt with. The issue of the Irish border would be unresolved, with a hardening currently looking unavoidable. Surely it is inconceivable that the UK could leave on such damaging terms. Yet, there are senior politicians who believe that it is a preference. Some even argue that leaving with no deal would provide us with opportunities. That is nonsense, and it is not possible to find any serious authority in favour of that argument. It is no secret that, about a year ago, when we were granted access to UK Government leaked papers on three Brexit scenarios, they referred to the negative impact that leaving with no deal would have on economic growth and our economy. It is not credible that, after that analysis, a no-deal scenario could be pursued.

The UK Parliament remains divided. This is a crisis in UK politics, and it is not acceptable for the UK Government to try to secure the vote with packages of money for areas of the UK on which it has forced austerity, that it has neglected and which it is set to damage even further with either a poor Brexit deal or a catastrophic no-deal exit.

The sensible approach to adopt now is to request an extension to the article 50 process, to enable the Parliament and the country to agree a level of consensus. There are a number of options and scenarios for what comes next. An extension is necessary, as the clock has been run down so far that, even with a deal, there is not enough time to scrutinise and pass the necessary legislation. My view is that there should be a more meaningful extension. The lack of a deal with parliamentary support is the responsibility of a Government that has been closed, obdurate and secretive and has made little attempt to engage meaningfully with parliamentary committees both here and at Westminster. If there was ever a time for the UK Government to take Opposition parties and Parliament with it, that time is now, and the same can be said for dealing with the devolved Governments.

The referendum result has left us in a situation that I do not want to be in—one that I campaigned against and that is extremely challenging. After the referendum was a time for unity. It needed the Prime Minister to recognise the narrowness of the result and to attempt to chart a course that was mindful of how divisive the referendum had been, what the result meant for the country’s economic future, what it said about the kind of country we are, how we engage with other countries and how we treat and value people who wish to come and live here.

I am a member of the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee, which has been taking evidence on the article 50 negotiations. In January, we had a series of meetings in Brussels, prior to the meaningful vote. From the perspective of the EU 27, the deal was done. They had negotiated in good faith with the Prime Minister. It was not their job to get the deal through the UK Parliament; they had already got 27 member states to agree to it. It might not have been unreasonable for them to have assumed that the Prime Minister was negotiating with a degree of authority. However, a general election that resulted in a minority Government, a Conservative Party that is riven over Europe, and a marriage of convenience with the Democratic Unionist Party that is turning out to be not particularly convenient leave the Prime Minister in a weak position in her own country. Trying to build consensus in the UK Parliament at the last minute, when MPs have never had influence over or ownership of the deal, will lead to failure or—if the manoeuvres of the last few days do get it through—a coalition that is cobbled together and acting in its own interests rather than those of the whole country. A deal agreed in Parliament on such terms would be unacceptable.

We are looking at the prospect of a people’s vote. If there were an amendment to support a public vote—a type of ratification vote—that is expected to have the support of Parliament. Those circumstances, or another route towards a public vote, demand a realistic delay to the article 50 process. It was the Prime Minister who decided on 29 March 2019 as exit day, but that is no longer realistic under any scenario.

Undoing our years of EU membership and our trading, environmental, social and judicial ties is proving to be difficult, complicated and disadvantageous to the UK. At a time of global uncertainty, with old and new threats and challenges, countries should co-operate more in addressing issues such as climate change, food insecurity, extremism and poverty.

With or without the UK, the EU will continue to play a leadership role on the international stage, promote important values and protect its citizens’ rights. We should strive to remain part of that community.