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The bold, the barmy and the mis-composited: Brexit after the UK party conferences

Mercifully, the party political conference season in Britain is over writes Andrew Duff. We would not normally pay too much attention to the resolutions on EU policy passed by party rank and file delegates. But this year, because Britain has taken back control of its own affairs, it’s worth taking a closer look.

The Liberal Democrats were first out of the block. They resolved (19 September) that their policy is to hold a second referendum on Brexit if the outcome of the negotiations is bad. That is bold, to say the least, and possibly barmy.

For one thing, the outcome of the secession negotiations is certainly going to be bad in Lib Dem terms. A second referendum would be as least as nasty and divisive as the first (which was nasty and divisive). If the outcome were marginally different – that is, say 52% voted to reject the Brexit agreement – there would be a constitutional crisis. Parliament at Westminster would be further undermined, the markets agitated and the EU destabilised. However, with only eight MPs the Lib Dems are unlikely to be decisive in this matter, so their resolution can stand as a clarion call to disaffected pro-European Remainers.

‘Composite’ is a word that has no meaning outside Labour’s conference rule book. To be interpreted, it means ‘to cut and paste a number of diametrically opposed ideas into one resolution in the hope that it can command a majority of delegates’. The Labour conference (27 September) accordingly agreed the following:

“Unless the final settlement proves to be acceptable, then the option of retaining EU membership should be retained. The final settlement should therefore be subject to approval, through Parliament and potentially through a general election or referendum”.

At first sight, this looks uncomfortably close to the Lib Dem version. But an hour after the conference vote, the National Executive Committee rushed out a statement which blamed “an error in compositing”. It elucidated:

“Conference policy on Brexit has been misinterpreted in some reports as committing Labour to a second referendum on UK membership of the EU, so for the avoidance of doubt we want to make it clear that it is not our policy.”

So Labour’s Brexit policy, which under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn had been pretty ambiguous throughout the referendum campaign, is now based on mis-compositing.

Could the Conservatives do any better? Because the Tories are the ruling party, what their conference said (or, rather, heard in a succession of ministerial speeches) actually matters. What they got was a mish-mash.

The chancellor of the exchequer wants to retain maximum access to the EU single market; the home secretary wants to restrict immigration to workers only; the trade secretary wants liberation from both the single market and the customs union so that he can strike out fearlessly bestride the globe; the foreign secretary (still, implausibly, Boris Johnson) wants to make jokes. David Davis, who is Brexit minister in chief, tried to square the circle.

Needing to appear decisive (2 October), Theresa May, prime minister, announced a Great Repeal Bill (to unwind the legal ties that bind the UK to the EU) and a date for invoking Article 50 (by the end of March). May, in Thatcherite mode, inveighed against the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, and vowed again to reduce immigration. Speaking against the backdrop of a plunging pound, her contempt for the City of London was not concealed.

The prime minister was reported by the press as wanting ‘hard Brexit’. The truth is, however, that the only offer of ‘soft Brexit’ came from David Cameron, now in disgrace, in his ‘new settlement’ package of February, which the voters rejected on 23 June. Leaving the EU altogether will be hard for the British economy to take, and the serious questions now to be negotiated with the EU are about levels and sectors of market access, tariffs and quotas, regulatory equivalence and budgetary contributions.

May’s performance in Birmingham is seen in Brussels as having been pitched at ‘CETA +’ – that is, a better free trade agreement than the one the EU has recently afforded Canada. That’s quite low down on the list of options, way below Norway in the EEA, very different from Turkey in the customs union, and rather more akin to Switzerland’s messy arrangements. There’s one option that has not been properly explored, and that’s Ukraine with whom the EU has agreed a political association agreement plus a deep and comprehensive free trade area.

Of course, as people never tire of telling me, the UK is not Ukraine. But the sunny plains of Ukraine rather than the foggy coasts of Canada might be where Britain ends up.

The purpose of the EU Ukrainian association agreement, by the way, is to turn Ukraine into a modern European state. Not a bad aspiration, even for Britain.

Andrew Duff is a Visiting Fellow at the European Policy Centre and was a Liberal MEP 1999-2014; This article was first posted on his blog in September 2016. `The original article can be found at . twitter @andrewduffeu

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