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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 Alex Rowley Alex Rowley Labour

It has been an interesting debate, and one that demonstrates that the Scottish Conservatives are in complete denial about the situation that we find ourselves in and the threat that it poses to the Scottish economy and people’s livelihoods. As James Kelly said, the situation was created by the Conservatives in the first instance, in an attempt to address their long-standing internal divisions over Europe, and it is now being perpetuated through their complete failure to put country before party.

Even if an agreement were to be reached in the coming weeks, it would be very difficult to put in place the required six acts of Parliament and 600 statutory instruments and get them agreed to before 29 March. That is why I hope and believe that our European neighbours and partners will recognise the need for an extension of article 50 and will agree to it if such a proposal is voted through by Westminster. Although there would be difficulties involved in the EU agreeing to an extension past the European elections at the end of May, where there is a will, there is a way. I think that it would be possible to negotiate an extension that would take us beyond the European elections if that time is needed to find the best way forward. All of that means that we must and should take a no-deal Brexit off the table.

Many people I have spoken to in recent weeks say that they are fed up with the whole process and just want it to be over, but a no-deal Brexit would not be the end. It would be the start of a further period of much more complex negotiations and a period of instability that would cost jobs and increase uncertainty and, indeed, hardship for communities up and down Scotland. In today’s edition of

The Times

, Professor Jim Gallagher notes that

“Government officials here, one the world’s richest countries, have been considering whether there would ... be enough food in the shops or medicines in the hospitals” if we were to leave with no relationship with the EU and no deal. The Conservative Government is content to spend £171,000 an hour on preparing for a dangerous and unnecessary no-deal scenario, which many economists say would be catastrophic and which has the potential to push Scotland’s economy into recession. Imagine what could be done if that £171,000 an hour were to be spent instead on education, health, housing and building our economy. Tory members should be apologising to the people of Scotland rather than opposing our taking a no-deal Brexit off the table.

Professor Gallagher is among many people who would like to see an extension of article 50 used to engage with people more widely. He argues for citizens’ assemblies—a measured, deliberative process in which ordinary citizens hear the evidence, consider the options and come to a view. He acknowledges that this could result in a second vote in the country but makes the valid point that campaigning now in a second referendum would be bitter and divisive.

Whether there is time to take on board these ideas remains to be seen, but the point that referendums do not lend themselves to informed debate and tend to create division and bitterness must surely be taken on board for the future. The key point of today’s debate is to make a clear statement that the no-deal option must be removed from the table. May’s no-deal threat is empty and hugely expensive, and it would waste billions of pounds that we should be spending on vital public services. It is a damaging attempt to appease a faction in her own party when she needs to reach out to overcome this crisis.

Labour is ready to talk to the Government and others in Parliament about a sensible alternative plan, but not while Theresa May is wasting £171,000 an hour of taxpayers’ money on dangerous and unnecessary no-deal brinkmanship. If the Prime Minister is serious about finding a solution that can command support in Parliament and bring our country together, she must listen not only to the majority of MPs and members of her own Cabinet but to the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales, which are overwhelmingly against a no-deal Brexit.

Labour will support an amendment in favour of a public vote to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit or a no-deal outcome, both of which would be damaging to our country. That is in line with our policy, which was agreed unanimously at conference last year and is a policy that we have stuck to. We will consider any back-bench amendment that is consistent with that approach. Any such amendment to support a public vote could be attached to the Prime Minister’s deal, or a version of it, should it win a majority in the House of Commons.

We will also continue to push for the other available options to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit or no deal, including a close economic relationship that is based on our credible alternative plan or—as Richard Leonard said—a general election. A no-deal Brexit would be deeply damaging to Scotland’s economy, and it would be damaging to people. It would be damaging to access to healthcare and to people’s quality of life. That is why this Parliament should unite and demand that a no-deal Brexit be taken off the table.