The 2016 Memorial Lecture was held in remembrance of John Fitzmaurice and Mike Ridgeway. Mike passed away earlier this year and had participated in Brussels Labour for many years, including as auditor of our accounts. We warmly welcomed Françoise, Mike’s partner, to the meeting.
His fellow auditor, Peter Wragg, told us how Mike was well known in Brussels circles and was also an active member of the Belgian Parti Socialiste. He was quite a private person with a dry sense of humour but who was fiercely loyal to Labour and, today, would have called strongly for party unity. Peter had known well Mike and John and he was moved to remember how they had both been discreet but selfless and learned comrades.
Also on this occasion, Labour International was pleased to give Frazer Clarke an award in recognition of his services as Treasurer.
Emma Reynolds, MP for Wolverhampton North East led a Delegation of MPs and gave the keynote speech. Emma had been Shadow Minister for Europe, as well as a former Treasurer of Brussels Labour ! She was delighted to see many old friends and had come to Brussels to discuss the situation in her new role as a representative on the Brexit Committee in the House of Commons.
She recalled the first ever John Fitzmaurice lecture given by Neil Kinnock. In those days Socialists were in power in 11 countries across Europe and there was a sense of a world full of possibilities. Never would we have imagined what was happening today.
However, Emma went on to say that today we needed to accept the situation. Working people did feel that they were neglected and were worried about their livelihoods. The Theresa May government seemed to put migration above all other issues, to the extent that it seemed to put UKIP into power without being in office. A hard Brexit was possible but it posed huge questions.
The recent High Court ruling clarified that since Parliament voted for the European Communities Act when the UK joined the EU, then only Parliament could repeal it. Labour MPs are pressing for a transitional free trade arrangement to fill the gap between the end of the Article 50 exit procedure and the conclusion of a full free trade agreement in compliance with Article 218. Otherwise there was the risk of less favourable WTO rules coming into force.
Emma outlined her principles for an exit settlement. We should defend progressive rights and avoid race to bottom. We should also ensure the closest possible relations with the EU and reform free movement. There was a spectrum between all or no free movement and a debate was needed to convince voters that we had a fair system.
UK financial expertise and the role of the City of London were valuable to Europe as well as to the UK it was in our mutual interest to preserve this. Furthermore, it was in all our interests to have a new relationship with Europe including British participation to deal with strategic issues such as security.
In the discussion that followed several friends questioned whether Labour should support Brexit following a referendum based on misinformation and which risked leaving the UK worse off. Emma underlined that in her view it was necessary to respect the result of the referendum, where 17 million people had voted to leave the EU. It was fundamentally important to respect democracy.
Theresa May was apparently intent on leaving the single market and therefore Labour had to focus on setting its own objectives for the Brexit process. We needed to say that European cooperation was still valuable and have the softest Brexit possible.
Stephen Kinnock, MP for Aberavon, spoke about how Brexit and the Trump victory pointed to a new post-liberal age where popular opinion had shifted. Labour had a choice between continuing to fight for existing policies, and risk perpetual defeat, or engaging with this new mood.
Other comments included that the softest Brexit will leave Britain worse off than what we have now with no Schengen and the budgetary rebate; the need to be pragmatic if the Brexit negotiations revealed that the Leave promises were unattainable and public opinion changed; the need to ensure reciprocal rights for EU and UK workers and respect acquired rights.
Click here to read Emma’s speech in full.