The 2016 EU referendum and the process of leaving it is the biggest issue to face our country in the last forty years and it is not one which is easily resolved.
As you may be aware, I campaigned to remain in the European Union because I believe that remaining within the EU would have been the best option for our economy, society and national security. However, I understand that the majority of people who voted in the 2016 referendum, in the UK and in Bolton, voted to leave the EU. This is why I voted to trigger Article 50 last year and start the Brexit process.
Since then, the Government has been continually bungling the negotiations with the EU, resulting in a deal which Theresa May has tried, and failed, to sell to the country and her own party. As we saw from the three ‘meaningful votes’ held in the House of Commons on the deal, it has very little support among MPs. Although more members of the Conservative Party swung behind her in the last round of voting, the resistance of the DUP means that May is very unlikely to achieve the Parliamentary numbers needed to push her deal through.
We now only have a short amount of time to either agree on an alternative or ask for an extension. This is because I do not agree that Brexit without a Deal is right for our country – it should never have been put on the table. It would cause huge devastation to our jobs, industry, security and standing in the world.
For me to say yes to a Brexit deal, it must pass several tests. It needs to ensure that we receive the benefits of the Customs Union and have access to the Single Market, whilst also maintaining some control over migration. It would need to defend rights and protections, preventing a likely race to the bottom as Conservatives attempt to make goods cheaper by undercutting minimum standards and ditching regulations. A good deal would also protect our national security and make sure that we retain capacity to tackle cross-border crime effectively. Finally, it must deliver for every region in England and every nation in the UK.
I believe that we must have a Brexit deal that passes these tests, otherwise it will do serious damage to the people of the UK and our economy. Theresa May’s deal does not pass any of them, giving me no choice but to oppose it. Our policy is to negotiate for such a new alternative, even if that requires an extension of the negotiations timetable, or a general election to bring to power a Government that will conduct the negotiations competently.
I understand that many people are eager for the UK to leave the EU. However, I believe that we must negotiate a deal that will benefit the UK and its citizens, and one that does not leave loose ends. It is particularly important that we ensure that British businesses that are currently trading with the EU do not get hit with tariffs on their products. Only a free-trade deal with the EU can stop UK goods being subject to EU tariffs. Under WTO rules the UK would have to pay EU tariffs when it sold goods to the EU, including 23.6% on sugars and confectionery, 12.8% on cereals and preparations, and 12% on fish and fish products. This would be hugely damaging to the North West, where half of all exports go to the EU.
A variety of other issues also need resolving. For example:
- We must ensure that the UK is still part of cross-EU crime fighting, as we currently are as part of Europol with access to the European arrest warrant, an instrument which has significantly improved national security
- We must ensure that British airlines, and airlines of EU countries, can fly between the UK and the EU’s single aviation market, which would require a specifically negotiated aviation deal.
- We must decide whether the UK Government will replace the EU’s spending in the UK, e.g. subsidising farmers, regional investment, and supporting the construction of civic buildings.
- We must negotiate new fishing deals with the EU, and non-EU countries like Norway, which currently share fishing waters with us. As we have seen with the English Channel scallop dispute, this is easier said than done.
- We must fill the legislative gaps that will be left after we leave the EU, such as EU bans on the farming and sale of cat, dog, and seal furs, which will need to be written into UK law once we leave. This also includes deciding which EU laws we want to keep, amend or remove from UK law.
All of these issues and more need to be resolved at some point. To leave before they have been addressed only means that we will be affected by the negative consequences of our inaction whilst trying to resolve the issues from outside the EU. This is why we should negotiate a deal with the EU before we leave.
The People’s Vote has strong support nationally and I still believe that a second referendum must be kept on the table to ensure that we don’t end up with a damaging No-Deal. However, should Labour gain enough influence to work on a good deal, that will be the priority. Two options being appraised through the indicative votes process are ‘Norway+’ and membership of the Customs Union. For me, a combination of these two would be a sensible option, as it would address the issues that I have laid out above. This deal would take us outside many of the civil, legal and political frameworks which people voted against, whilst ensuring a close, long-term and mutually beneficial relationship.
Such a deal would also solve the issue of the Irish backstop. Surprisingly, it appears to have come to the attention of the DUP only recently that No-Deal would lead inevitably to a hard border. Unless they are prepared to accept a border in the Irish Sea, there is no way around this. Whilst a hard border would break with the Good Friday Agreement, different regulatory systems for England and Northern Ireland would gravely endanger the Union. Nothing that the Government has put forward has suggested any feasible resolution to this issue. My personal feeling is that May’s Deal would also significantly strengthen calls for independence in Scotland, the country that voted most strongly in favour of remain (62%). In order to hold the UK together, we need a softer Brexit with guaranteed access to the European Market.
Finally, I want to add that parliamentarians are doing a complicated job under a great deal of pressure. Nobody is being difficult for fun. Members of Parliament are doing their best to reach an agreement which would allow us to leave the European Union but would not have a devastating economic impact. I will continue to do that.