Brussels Labour hosted a meeting with socialist sister parties in September. Our comrades across Europe have naturally been very concerned by the Brexit referendum and its consequences for Britain, Europe and global affairs. Therefore we called a meeting, in a spirit of solidarity, to exchange views on the political situation. We were happy to welcome the Partito Democratico (IT), the Partij van de Arbeid (NL) and the Socialistische Partij Anders (BE) to the debate.
BLPG Chair, Jo Wood, opened the evening saying that each member of Brussels Labour was personally affected by the referendum result. We have chosen to live and work in Brussels, have built a life here with family, friends and commitments and whatever happens we will be directly affected. However, Brussels Labour intends to carry on being active to support the closest relationship possible with Europe. In particular, we would take up the cause of Brits living and working in the EU. Emily Thornberry, Shadow Minister for Brexit, had recently visited Brussels and had invited us to provide the Labour Party with briefings and inputs during the unprecedented negotiations which lay ahead.
I summarized the political situation in Britain, which had been shaken by the referendum. The new Conservative government was trying to give an impression of decisiveness but in fact everything was “in the air” pending the start of Article 50 negotiations. The country remained divided along the lines of the referendum, by nation, region and generation, in a debate that was described as “post-truth”, such was it driven by negative emotions and myths. Jeremy Corbyn, recently confirmed Labour leader, has said that the referendum should be respected but also that a Labour government would not seek to reduce immigration.
Jo explained how in Scotland there was little appetite for a second referendum on independence and Scottish Labour was opposing it, so as not to destabilize the situation further. Paul Hagan showed how, in Northern Ireland, the main issue was the border with the Republic of Ireland, which could become an external border of the EU.
Kier Fitch presented a number of difficult policy issues that would be thrown up by Brexit. Trade with Europe was not affected so much by tariffs but by non-tariff barriers. How would Britain retain meaningful access to the single market without regulatory alignment ? How would British researchers, scientists and students participate in their European programmes and networks ? Moreover, the ongoing court case on the invocation of Article 50 was critical because it would determine if the government would be able to bypass Parliament in negotiating the terms of Brexit.
In the discussion there were diverse views. Some friends thought that, as regrettable as it was, the referendum result had to be respected and there was no point in trying to avoid exit. Others felt that it was best to move quickly to conclude the terms of the exit and then decide on an informed basis whether they were acceptable. Another view was that there seemed to be no real “soft exit” option between becoming an ordinary third country like Canada and remaining in the EU: we should not leave the EU at any cost to working people’s livelihoods and rights.
Friends from sister parties asked what Labour’s approach to the negotiations would be. The need for a strategic approach was necessary, but had been forgotten during the referendum campaign. The Labour perspective on the EU as a way of managing globalization and international capital had not been articulated. However, with no overarching vision it would be difficult to have a coherent approach.