‘Sufficient progress’ – Mrs May has accepted the UK is staying in the Single Market

In October, when the European Parliament was asked if the negotiations between the UK and the 27 other EU Member States (the EU27) had made ‘sufficient progress’ to move on to the next stage, the answer was a self-evident ‘no’.

There was no agreement between the two parties and progress was clearly very limited. All that really existed was a statement of intent made by the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, on her ludicrous jaunt to Florence. At that time, reading her words closely, she effectively committed to much of what was in the agreement concluded in Brussels during the early hours of Friday 8 December. Progress then became bogged down in the muddy attritional battlefield that is the Conservative Cabinet. Her position was undermined by self-serving senior colleagues and the train wreck that was Conservative Conference.

The October vote was a statement of fact - there was no progress, never mind sufficient. Most Conservative MEPs weren’t even in Strasbourg to vote, though that didn’t stop Theresa May blaming Labour MEPs for her own inability to deliver.

Failing to take charge of negotiations herself, as four of her five predecessors almost certainly would have and even David Cameron probably would have (1), David Davis was left to muddle along, as ever hopelessly out of his depth, until the drama became a crisis. Eventually, as was always likely to be the case, a deadline forced agreement. Not the deadline imposed by Michelle Barnier, but the more pressing deadline facing many companies whose planning horizons for 2019 are defined by the year end of 2017. To have gone into January without a deal would have provoked a catastrophic reaction from the commercial world - under that threat the Prime Minister had no option to agree to the terms offered by the EU27.

If one is to judge an outcome by the reactions of others, then the tantrums of UKIP are a reasonable barometer. Little Mr Farage was of no doubt that the Prime Minister had conceded entirely to the EU27. He tossed round words like “betrayal”, “sell out” and “appeasement” while claiming that the agreement amounted to ‘a single market of some kind’, that ‘Britain wasn’t really leaving’ and that ‘leave voters were not getting what they voted for’ or words to that effect.It is worth noting in all this that several events predicted by the Brexiteers have not come to pass.

  • The unity of the EU27 did not crumble. If the few Conservative MEPs still in touch with Planet Reality were listened to in Downing Street she would have known it was never going to happen.
  • Angela Merkel did not ride to the rescue. Not only did the Conservatives and a cross section of the Brexit Press seem to believe this idea, but again fail to understand the commitment to the European Union is stronger in Germany than just about anywhere else.
  • German manufacturing did not dictate a settlement - for the simple reason that the EU27 market is worth a great deal more than the UK market.
  • The UK Government was never in a position to “just walk away”. Wiser heads prevailed and convinced Mrs May that ignoring treaty obligations and not settling debts is a very good way indeed to end up with no allies. The money proved to be just that - only money.
  • Most fundamentally, they DON'T ‘need us more than we need them’ - Brexit is justifiably the UK’s priority but it is not the priority for anyone else.

The agreement itself leaves much to be desired. While it is true that some important matters have been resolved on citizen’s rights there is much work yet to be done and there is nothing to prevent further progress. What is noticeable is the relatively poor terms secured for UK citizens living in the EU compared to those offered for EU Citizens in the UK. The latter retain their freedom of movement rights while UK citizens in the EU27 will be unable to move without restriction from a job in one Member State to another. It amazes me that the UK Government has been so bad at protecting the interests of a million of its nationals. In other areas the view of the European Parliament that Labour MEPs were able to influence, helped secure rights for children yet to be born and the guarantee of lifetime rights to EU Citizens ought to protect against either party reneging.

The massive contradictions of arrangements for the Irish border can only be resolved one way - continuing in the Single Market and Customs Union for the whole of the UK - or some bespoke, largely semantic arrangement cooked up by the parties to sound as if it isn’t the Single Market when everybody knows that, in fact, it is. Nothing else can deliver the outcome to which the UK has agreed.
But, nonetheless, there was an agreement, and it fell to the Parliament to recognise that ‘sufficient progress’ has been made to move on to wider talks on future relationships, so I and my Labour colleagues voted, once again, to recognise the facts. It would have been perverse to do anything else but it is certainly not the end of the matter - just the end of the beginning. It is also an essential step for the country as it reduces the chances of a ‘cliff edge’ no deal Brexit - the worst catastrophe of all and the reason why Mr Farage and his chums, who think ‘no deal’ is the only way out, are so unhappy. Their narrative requires the social dislocation and economic catastrophe that crashing out would bring. Far from owning responsibility, they would scapegoat anyone but themselves. When Brexit, should it happen, fails to deliver what those who voted ‘leave’ in good faith were promised UKIP and their chums will find scapegoats. It’s what they do on the extreme right.

This European Parliament vote was never a means of stopping Brexit - had I thought so I would have voted differently. That power now lies most clearly with the House of Commons which later in the day took onto itself the means of rescuing the UK from calamity by giving itself a vote on the final deal. Brexit can be stopped and the Brexiteers know it - which is why they are in such a panic.