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The following is from Richard Corbett’s interview with UK in a changing Europe
The following is from Richard Corbett’s interview with UK in a changing Europe. The interview is broken down by topic: The UK in the European Union, The Referendum, Labour’s Brexit dilemma, The Brexit process in the European Parliament and The UK and the EU after Brexit.
The UK in the European Union
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): You were first elected to the European Parliament in 1996. Why did you decide you wanted to be a member of the European Parliament?
Richard Corbett (RC): I was always interested in European integration. Partly because when I was a teenager I lived in Geneva. Switzerland is a country that is multilingual, multi-confessional, highly decentralised – dealing therefore with the problems of unity with diversity, keeping separate identities, cultures, languages and so on, but because of interdependence and the need for stability, finding unity where necessary.
Having had that experience, I then came back to Britain and was at university just when the 1975 referendum took place. I became very active and engaged in the ‘Yes’ campaign. That deepened my interest in European matters. I became active in European youth and student organisations and I later worked with Alterio Spinelli on his proposal to re-write the European treaties.
By 1996, I was deputy secretary general of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament, so I was quite familiar with the Parliament, what it could do, how its powers were evolving. I had done a lot of work on that over time, helping draft the relevant bits of the Maastricht Treaty about the Parliament’s powers.
Then suddenly, because of the sad death of a Labour MP under the old single member constituency system, there was a by-election. It was for Merseyside West, which is where I was born and spent the early years of my life.
I threw my hat into the ring with relish, but not thinking I had a great chance of being selected as the Labour candidate. But at the end of the day, after the various hustings meetings, I was selected via a postal ballot of all party members in the eight Westminster constituencies that together comprised Merseyside West, defeating an NEC member, a local council leader and a future MP on the way. That was the difficult part – the by-election itself was almost a foregone conclusion in that area at that time. And that’s how I came to the European Parliament as a member.
Unlike most new members, I already knew a fair bit about how the European Union and especially the Parliament worked, whereas for many new members there is a sharp learning curve when you are first elected.
UKICE: When you were in the European Parliament, under the Major Government and then the Blair and Brown Governments, what did you make of the way in which the UK government engaged with the European Parliament?
RC: It had its ups and downs, but in the final years more downs than ups. I first became an MEP at the tail end of the Major Government, but then under the Labour Government there was quite a significant level of engagement.
What we had with the Labour Government was a system whereby for each ministerial team in Westminster – the cabinet minister and the junior ministers of a department – a corresponding Labour MEP from the European Parliament committee that deals with the same subject would be identified and would be invited to their ministerial team meetings. Not that they could always go, because of course timetables and geography didn’t always make that easy, but they would all stay in touch and be in regular contact.
That was very useful, because when new ideas and new proposals come up at European level, such as a Commission proposal for legislation or whatever it might be, the MEPs are immediately engaged, quite often before ministers have had a look at it. Having an early opportunity to discuss things with your party comrades who are in government back home and to exchange views was extremely useful.
Of course, the government probably saw this as a way of keeping MEPs in line, and we saw it as a way of influencing ministers. In practice it was a two-way process.
I don’t think the Conservatives, when they came to power, had anything equivalent to that. With the gradual rise in strength of the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party, which had a dim view of MEPs and the European Parliament, I think contacts were very much diminished.
That being said, I remember that first thing after the 2014 election, when I came back to the Parliament after being out for five years, there was a bagful of invitations to go and meet ministers in the Cameron Conservative Government, corresponding to what committees I was serving on in the Parliament. They did try to establish some sort of relationship.
UKICE: One of the pledges David Cameron made when he was elected leader was to pull the Conservatives out of the European People’s Party grouping in the European Parliament. As an MEP, sitting there as a member of the Socialist Group of MEPs (S&D), what did you make of that decision? Did you have discussions with your Conservative MEP colleagues about that?
RC: Yes. It was a silly decision. It was made to appeal to the Eurosceptic wing of his party during the leadership election in which he was first elected Conservative leader. It was only implemented much later.
Most of the Conservative MEPs were against it because it took them out of one of the two main political Groups in the Parliament, to create a much smaller separate Group with much less influence. Particularly as, to recruit enough members to create a Group, it involved recruiting people from some rather strange, often extremist, even quasi-fascist parties. It was not a sensible move.
Now, there were some Conservative MEPs in favour of it. Dan Hannan and Roger Helmer had long been pushing for that, as they saw it as a way to detach the Conservatives from the mainstream centre-right in Europe and create a new alliance of highly Eurosceptic parties. But the overwhelming majority of Conservative MEPs were against it.
Irrespective of party politics, you can say it damaged Britain’s interests because Britain no longer had a component in one of the two big groups, indeed the largest group, in the European Parliament. The European Parliament is organised via the political groups. Being a ‘hung’ parliament with no fixed ‘governing majority’ whipped into line, majorities are secured issue by issue through bargaining among the groups. The two largest ones – the EPP and the Socialists – were pivotal in such talks. The departure of the Conservatives meant a significant reduction in British influence, not only in the Parliament but also among governments – for example at the EPP pre-meetings ahead of European Council meetings, where Cameron no longer had an opportunity to hob-nob or coordinate with other centre-right leaders. It reduced the flow of information and contacts that were available to the government.
UKICE: You had a period outside the European Parliament after 2009, when you had this role as an advisor to Herman Van Rompuy. I just wondered; how did you get that role?
RC: 2009 was a disastrous year for elections for the Labour Party. We did very badly in the European elections. I lost my seat. I wasn’t sure what I should do next. I first went off to Ireland to help in their referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and the campaign there.
When the Lisbon Treaty came into effect, one of the things it did was to change the post of President of the European Council, which had previously just rotated around its members in line with the rotation of the presidency of the Council of Ministers, and replaced that with a full-time, longer-term President who would no longer himself be a prime minister or president of his country.
Longer term was an improvement because, with the previous system, you had a new chair every second meeting, which didn’t do much for continuity. Full time was important because, as they were all busy with national governments to run, fulfilling the role of President was becoming increasingly difficult. The European Council works by consensus among nearly 30 heads of government – all prima donnas. It’s like herding cats. You can only do it with a lot of careful preparation for meetings, talking to everybody beforehand, putting a text on the table, finding a compromise, knocking heads together. It became very time consuming as the EU got bigger. This reform also meant that the national leaders could actually choose who they wanted to chair their meetings, rather than have to follow an automatic rotation that gave turns to less able or less popular members.
So, this was a sensible little reform included in the Lisbon package, which meant that the European Council would have a longer-term, full-time president. The first one they appointed was Herman Van Rompuy, the Prime Minister of Belgium, who therefore relinquished that post.
He had to put together his cabinet (private office), and he asked me to join. I ticked a few boxes. He needed somebody to advise him on constitutional questions, which was my main task. That had been a little bit my speciality in the past, as I was the European Parliament’s rapporteur on the Lisbon Treaty and I’d been the Socialist Group’s lead on the Constitutional Affairs Committee for 10 years. It was useful for him to have a Brit (and Labour was still in government at that point). He needed somebody who knew the European Parliament and could manage his relationship there. And he needed a socialist, because he couldn’t fill his cabinet only with Christian Democrats, which he was.
UKICE: David Cameron came into government in 2010 and started moving in a more Eurosceptic direction than the last Labour Government, culminating in that big bust up at the 2011 European Council after the Fiscal Compact. How did you all see that from Van Rompuy’s office? What did you think of the way the UK Government was handling EU issues?
RC: The very first impression of the new government was that it was interesting to see Conservative ministers coming out to Brussels and engaging in meetings, and hearing them say, ‘Oh, it’s not as bad as we thought. The reality is a little bit different from what is portrayed’.
But that only worked for some of them. The Conservative Party was split on Europe with an increasingly hard-line, Eurosceptic right wing. Cameron was always looking over his shoulder to placate them.
But the attempt to veto the Fiscal Compact, as far as we saw it, came out of the blue. Nobody in Brussels was expecting that, because it was a reform that only affected Eurozone members. Whether it’s a good reform or not is another matter, but it was for them, it was to help ensure that the sovereign debt crisis didn’t jeopardise the euro and the stability of the Eurozone.
It wasn’t as if Britain was being asked to give up something or to make any significant concession. But Cameron saw this as an opportunity to make unrelated demands on other issues. Frankly, the rest of the EU saw this as an unreasonable way of behaving. In the end they said, ‘If you are going to veto any treaty changes, since this is a matter only pertaining to the Eurozone, we can do a treaty by ourselves without you’. That was a bit more complicated legally but was feasible, so they called his bluff.
The other comment I have is, why weren’t Nick Clegg and the Liberals a little bit more aware of what was happening? I gather Nick Clegg was rung up in the middle of the night to be informed of what happened after the event, but he hadn’t focussed on this beforehand or spotted the looming problem. As a former MEP, he should have been more clued up about these issues.
UKICE: A couple of years after that, David Cameron moved on to his Bloomberg speech. What discussions did Van Rompuy’s team have with David Cameron and his advisors about the possibilities of a renegotiation, or the risks of the referendum? Were you at all engaged in those discussion?
RC: At that point, it was not a matter of any formal discussions, as it was an internal matter for the UK. If the UK or any national government wants to consider leaving the EU, it is free to do so.
But informally, people did warn Cameron against it because, at the very least, it was going to be a massive distraction. Cameron was also quite confident that he’d win it, as Harold Wilson had done in 1975. I thought he was over-confident and I wrote a note on the matter for President Van Rompuy warning of the danger of Brexit by accident.
Cameron had underestimated the degree to which the Eurosceptic, Euro-hostile wing of his party was determined and organised to seize such an opportunity, as was UKIP, which would be the only opportunity they were ever likely to have to remove Britain from the EU.
I’d seen in the European Parliament how focussed and relentless they were. I knew that winning such a referendum wouldn’t be easy. And even if Cameron had been right that he would win it, he would in the process have made all sorts of pledges and promises that would tie the government’s hands for year – ‘vote Yes and we will never do this, and we will never accept that. We will always make sure the EU won’t do whatever’. Rash pledges and promises that could make things much more difficult later on. There were all kinds of reasons to ward him off it, but he did not listen.
Cameron had said he would try and reform Britain’s membership of the European Union before putting it to the referendum. But when the negotiations started, people were a bit perplexed at some of the things he chose to focus on. For instance, he wanted to revise the treaty’s wording on ‘ever closer union’.
Now, that wording in the treaty: firstly, it’s not a text with any legally precise commitment. It’s in the declaratory preamble bit. Secondly it says, ‘Ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’ – not the states. It’s an aspiration for closer relations and harmony among people. It’s not something that commits a state to any particular course of action.
Thirdly it had been revised at the time of the Maastricht Treaty at the insistence of John Major, a Conservative British Prime Minister, to say in full: ‘an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity’.
Now, the principle of subsidiarity, defined in the legally operative body of the treaty, requires that the Union should be as decentralised as possible and only centralised where necessary. You only do things at European level if there is an advantage in acting jointly. Otherwise, you do things at national level.
So, it was misleading to portray the words ‘ever closer union’ as a conveyer belt to a centralised superstate, when, if you read the whole thing, it’s actually rather more balanced. A balance that was instigated by a British Conservative Prime Minister.
So, you can imagine how others in Europe saw Cameron as creating a strawman, a red herring, for no real reason, no advantage whatsoever, other than posturing to the Eurosceptic wing of his party.
Similarly, his demand that the treaty be revised to specify that the euro is not the only currency in the EU. There was already a cast-iron treaty level opt-out for the UK (and Denmark) from joining the euro, so such a demand was purely for show and would not change the legal situation one iota.
UKICE: Given your position both at this time and then as an MEP after coming back into the European Parliament in 2014, were you at all closely involved in discussions with Ed Miliband before the 2015 election, or indeed with Jeremy Corbyn afterwards, about Labour’s tactics or positioning?
RC: I talked frequently to Ed Miliband when he became leader. His constituency was in my Yorkshire Euro-constituency – in 1999 when we switched electoral system to regional lists, I became a MEP for Yorkshire & Humber. Yes, we were in touch regularly.
He never came out in favour of a referendum. There were some people around who said, ‘Yes, let them have a referendum and clear the air’, on the assumption it would be won easily. But Ed never backed Cameron on having a referendum. The issue was well down the list of public concerns according to opinion polls.
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): In the run up to the referendum, you saw the outcome of the renegotiation, and the reaction that came back from the UK Cabinet. When the referendum campaign kicked off, did you have a sense of foreboding about the outcome, or did you share that view that it would be won pretty easily?
Richard Corbett (RC): I remember one evening in Strasbourg with some fellow Labour MEPs a month or so before the referendum. We were predicting what the percentage of the Remain vote would be. The range of most people was between 50% and 60%. I was the only one to say it would be less than 50% for Remain. I can’t remember whether I said 48 or 49. I knew it would be close, but I was certainly apprehensive.
UKICE: Why did you think that?
RC: Well, one is the reason I mentioned earlier, which was how organised, determined and focused the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party was. They had always been dismissed by many others as being a right-wing fringe group in the Conservative Party, but they had been organising and focused on this for a long time, as had UKIP. Secondly, if you look at the British written media, especially given the pattern of ownership it has, I think about two-thirds of the national press was hostile to British membership of the European Union, with the Mail and The Express leading the way.
But The Telegraph and the Murdoch press were not far behind. The idea that you would have a dispassionate analytical debate on this was for the birds, and indeed that turned out to be the case. I don’t know if you have seen the compilations of headlines from the front pages of some of the newspapers during that period, but they are quite striking. Even the BBC was a problem: BBC Question Time, the most watched political show, had in the decade 2010 to 2019, 50 MEP panellists: 47 from UKIP/Brexit Party (22 times Farage), and 3 Conservative Party (each time the Eurosceptic Hannan), but not a single Labour, Liberal, Green SNP, Plaid or even a moderate Conservative MEP. Every time the public saw an MEP on this programme, it was one who sought to denigrate the EU.
I also knew that (Nigel) Farage and others would misleadingly link Brexit to the contentious issue of immigration, arguing that, within the EU, we can’t control our borders. Which was nonsense because Britain wasn’t in Schengen and does control people at the borders.
Most migration to Britain was from outside the EU, entirely under national rules. Britain could decide how liberal or restrictive it wanted to be. It was nothing to do with the EU.
EU freedom of movement was a smaller part of immigration and was a reciprocal right, with a significant number of Brits living abroad in other EU countries: many of whom were retirees on Mediterranean coasts, thereby relieving the NHS of pressure, while many of the eastern European in the UK were young adults, recently educated at the expense of another country’s taxpayers, coming to work in Britain, contributing to the economy and paying, overall, three times more in taxes than they received in benefits.
But I knew those arguments, like many of the arguments in the referendum campaign, would lead to a one-liner from the Leave campaign. ‘We can’t control our borders because we are in the EU’, with posters of large numbers of migrants queuing, like the notorious poster from Nigel Farage with the long queue of people from the Middle East wanting to come to Britain.
Answering such points requires an explanation, a lengthy one, of the facts. That was what we were up against. I think that was predictable in advance, that there would be a whole series of emotional one-line arguments, visualised very often in striking posters, or on the Daily Express front pages.
To rebut those, you need to keep people’s attention for several minutes at the very least to say, ‘Well hang on. This doesn’t mean that. That doesn’t mean this. There are safeguards. There is X, Y, Z’. But that immediately puts you at a disadvantage in such a campaign.
UKICE: What did you make of the campaign more generally, and in particular Labour’s part in it?
RC: The Remain campaign was not very well co-ordinated, particularly the parts of it that were party political and had the obvious challenge of getting somebody like Jeremy Corbyn to work (or at least co-ordinate) with David Cameron.
On Labour’s side, Labour was unanimous at the party conference beforehand in saying, ‘We campaign to remain’. There was not a single vote against that position, although that did not stop Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart from joining the Leave campaign and giving it a cross-party veneer that helped its credibility. The party membership was, and largely still is, very pro-European. But the campaign wasn’t very effective or dynamic. Now, that’s in no small part because Jeremy (Corbyn) was leader, who has never been comfortable or knowledgeable about the EU and historically was of course Eurosceptic. He did campaign to remain, but not very effectively.
I think there was a statistic that something like 40% of people who said they normally voted Labour didn’t know what the party position was. If we had had a leader who was really engaged in the campaign, making clear arguments and was knowledgeable enough to engage in these arguments, that in itself could well have swung the difference between the 51.9% and 48.1%.
UKICE: Where were you when you heard the result? Were you surprised?
RC: I was in Leeds at the Yorkshire count. I wasn’t entirely surprised but I was very disappointed. God knows what time in the morning I left. I couldn’t face doing any more interviews on it and in despair went home.
Labour’s Brexit Dilemma
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): If we move on to after the referendum, in November 2016 you wrote for LabourList calling for a referendum on the ultimate deal. How did you get to that position? Were you having conversations within the Labour party about that as a potential way forward?
Richard Corbett (RC): I came to advocate that position, and indeed I pressed that within the Labour Party, because I thought Brexit was a national mistake, and if there were a chance to reverse it democratically, it should be seized. And, in any case, because Brexit was going to turn out to be very different from what was promised by the Leave campaign.
Remember, the Leave campaign made several pledges. They said it would be easy. It was turning out to be rather complicated. They said it would save lots of money that would all go to the NHS. It was turning out to be rather costly. They said we would keep free access to the European market, including the right of Brits to reside in other countries and work in other member states. It was very quickly apparent that that was unlikely to happen.
On the grounds that the final outcome of this process would be very different from what was promised, I thought it was perfectly reasonable to say that Britain should have a chance to reconsider. After all, even David Davis had said that ‘if a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy’. And Nigel Farage had said that a 52-48 result of the referendum would settle nothing, when he thought it would go the other way.
And, given that there had been a referendum, I argued that the final vote on the actual deal shouldn’t just be a parliamentary vote. It should be a public vote. The public should have the right to say what they thought of it once the full details were there to see, black on white, not on the back of a few nice promises of sunlit uplands made in 2016.
Of course, the public could still vote for it and say, ‘Yes. Never mind the disadvantages, we want to go ahead’. But it was right to let the public decide.
Of course, Brexit supporters, terrified of losing a second referendum, argued that it was somehow not democratic to allow people to think again or vote again. I countered that argument, in my speeches, in Shadow Cabinet meetings and in media interviews by saying, ‘Refusing to allow the public a final say is tantamount to saying that they had their say three years ago, and now they have to shut up and accept whatever we come up with. That is not democratic’.
UKICE: Were you at all concerned by the argument that, if the EU negotiators knew that this would ultimately go back to a second referendum, given that quite a lot of people in Europe seemed to think that the UK would and should reverse its decision, that would incentivise the EU side to give the UK as bad a deal as possible? That way, they would incentivise the UK to get it right second time around, and we would potentially be leaving a better deal on the table?
Or did you think a better deal was never going to be available from the EU, as they would always insist on a very hard form of Brexit and therefore there was nothing to be lost through this strategy?
RC: I didn’t think it incentivised the EU at all. The EU was confronting the situation of losing a member state for the first time ever, which was not good news for the EU. It hurt them economically as well, though not as badly as it hurt Britain.
The EU was interested in trying to minimise the damage, but it was not going to allow Britain to have its cake and eat it – keep all the benefits of the EU and have unfettered access to the Single Market without having to apply the same obligations and follow the same or similar standards.
They could see that Britain never faced up to making the rather unpalatable choices that Brexit entails. Either you distance yourself from the EU by leaving not just its political structure but also the Single Market and the customs union, and taking a big economic hit, given that half your trade is with the European Union and your supply chains and export markets are badly affected. Or else, you try to attenuate that and have a softer Brexit, maybe staying de facto in the Single Market in a similar way to Norway or Switzerland, or perhaps staying in the customs union like Turkey. But then you must follow the European rules without having a say on them, because you are not a member. Neither is really very good for Britain.
In the referendum campaign, you had Leave campaigners portraying both those positions, although they are contradictory, depending on which audience they were speaking to. Some spoke of a Global Britain freed from its ties with Europe, making new and better trade deals across the world. At the same time, you had others who said that Britain would still be as close as before to the rest of Europe, was just leaving its political institutions because it didn’t like the idea of a federal European system (even though it had a veto on that) and proclaiming that ‘No-one is talking about leaving the Single Market.’
Both of these views were presented. Then, after the referendum, the Theresa May government found it very difficult to make such choices. And Boris Johnson of course famously said, ‘I want to have my cake and eat it’.
On the EU side of the negotiations, they were saying, ‘The choice is yours’. Michel Barnier made that famous sketch with a staircase: ‘The further you are away, the less access you’ll have, because you are not going to compete in our market by playing under a different set of rules on competition policy, on consumer protection standards, on environmental standards. But if you stay closer to the common rules (that, after all, we developed together), the easier it will be to have access and to participate in the Single Market.’
There were similar debates on police and justice cooperation and Britain’s access to European arrest warrants, to the Schengen information system, Europol, Eurojust, police databases. Again, Britain had the choice either to remain plugged into those things, but then of course applying the same rules, rights and standards on access to data and on human rights; or, to distance itself, because it didn’t want to follow those rules, but then with no access anymore to these important tools.
Those choices were never faced up to, even once the negotiations had started on the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. Even later when it came to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), the Government was divided. Some ministers hadn’t grasped the issues at all. David Davis and Chris Grayling spring to mind for some reason.
UKICE: In the 2017 election, Labour was able to fudge a position; they set out the six tests by that point, but hadn’t come to any explicit position on what type of deal the UK would end up with. Do you think that was quite helpful to Labour in that election, as they could attract Remainers who were a bit annoyed about Brexit but also not scare off Leavers? Do you buy that analysis of why Corbyn did better than expected in that election?
RC: It could well be one of the features. Jeremy’s line was a ‘jobs first Brexit’, which of course leans towards a soft Brexit, although at that point it was just a headline without much detail in it. But Labour in this period was going through its own debates and convulsions.
Labour faced this problem: its position had been to remain in the EU. But it was now faced with the result of the referendum being in favour of leaving. What do you do as a political party? You can either say, ‘Well, we are a democratic party. We accept that result, even though it was very narrow and won with some questionable tactics’. Or you can say, ‘Like after a general election when we lose, we don’t back everything the other side wants to do. We fight on’. There was a genuine dilemma.
But there was also the fact that most Labour MPs represented constituencies where a majority of people had voted to leave. However, within those constituencies, most Labour voters supported remaining. MPs were torn about what to do.
The obvious place to find party unity was to say, ‘You’ve got to act on the result of the referendum and negotiate a deal, but it has to be a deal that works for Britain, that doesn’t harm our economy and destroy our jobs. We will hold the government to account for the sort of Brexit that it negotiates’. There was a degree of party unity around that position.
But then as time went on and it became more and more apparent that the type of Brexit likely to emerge was one that was not satisfactory for Labour, because it was a much harder Brexit than it needed to be, the question then arose, ‘What do we do about that?’
Concurrently with all that was what was happening with public opinion. Public opinion didn’t do what most political leaders had expected. The leaderships of both major parties expected public opinion to rally behind the result of the referendum. People would say, ‘We’ve had our debate. We voted. It’s settled. Let’s get on with it’.
That didn’t happen. Public opinion, in fact, edged the other way, despite no major party pushing for this. It didn’t rally behind Brexit. A group called ‘Remainers Now’ – people who had voted Leave but regretted it, started speaking up. Then the People’s Vote campaign was set up, calling for a referendum on the actual outcome, with the option of remaining after all.
Labour had to decide what to do about that. I was advocating backing that position, as were a number of other people. But others were saying, ‘No, we can’t be seen to be doing anything like that. We’ve got to respect the result of the referendum’.
Debates in Shadow Cabinet, in the NEC and in the wider party were intense. Gradually, Labour came to the position of backing another referendum. But it did so belatedly and with caveats such that, by the spring of 2019, with a still ambiguous position, it was losing a lot of support to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, (and in Scotland and Wales, also to the SNP and Plaid Cymru).
UKICE: When you started attending the Shadow Cabinet as leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Group from Autumn 2017, what was the quality of conversation in the Shadow Cabinet about Brexit?
Were there really good, substantive, thoughtful discussions about the emerging government position, about Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, over moving potentially to support another referendum, or was it mostly off the agenda?
RC: It was very much on the agenda at almost every meeting. For a while, there was a sub-committee on Brexit, which I also attended, for those shadow ministers whose portfolios were particularly relevant to that discussion.
The discussions were a mixture of evaluating a situation that was moving and changing as the negotiations went on, and the pressures on the party to shift its position that I described earlier.
They were also getting to grips with a lot of detail, because of the complexity of these negotiations. What a customs union means in practice for instance, and what leaving it means in practice, was something that I think many members were blissfully unaware of until that point. Many of them were on a steep learning curve, for understandable reasons. But they were getting to grips with this rather slowly.
UKICE: Jeremy Corbyn set out Labour’s position in a speech in February 2018, where he suggested being part of a customs union but having a say in trade policy. Were you involved in the formation of those positions that started to etch out what Theresa May might call a ‘bespoke relationship’ with the EU? Were these realistic things to be asking for?
RC: That was the first shift, or shall we say evolution, of Jeremy’s public position and it indeed followed some intense discussions in the Shadow Cabinet sub-committee. In that speech he committed to Labour staying in the customs union to limit the economic effects and the number of job losses. That means, of course, that you accept any EU trade deals with countries around the rest of the world. While these would usually not be too difficult for Britain to accept, because the EU has got the clout as the world’s largest single market to get pretty good deals with other countries, nonetheless, you are accepting a deal that they negotiate. Hence the demand to have a mechanism that the UK would somehow be involved in shaping the EU’s negotiating position.
We were urging government to put this on the negotiating table. It would not have been easy to negotiate such an arrangement, but pushing for this showed that Labour was developing a concept of, ‘If this is going to work, we need a close relationship that doesn’t destroy our economy’. And for me, it would have the logical consequence of leading to a position of saying that if you don’t get that sort of deal, then you’ve got to question Brexit as such.
UKICE: Was the sub-committee where decisions were first made, and then it went to the Shadow Cabinet? Was it easier to get things moving in a more positive direction through the sub-committee than through the Shadow Cabinet?
RC: So many shadow ministers were (rightly) saying that their portfolio was also affected that the sub-committee was abandoned and from early 2018 all discussions took place in the full Shadow Cabinet.
Within Shadow Cabinet, there was a range of views. Of course, there is now a narrative to blame it all on Jeremy, which I think is simplistic because frankly, he was dealing with an issue which was new to him. Europe had never been his career focus; he was suspicious of the EU, but never really got involved in its details.
I would say his position was more one of indecision. He was being pulled in different directions. Those in the Shadow Cabinet who were the most hostile to Labour moving towards questioning Brexit and having another referendum were Ian Lavery and Richard Burgon, and to a degree Jon Trickett. Whereas people like John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and others were very open to moving.
It was not a left-right division, neither within the Shadow Cabinet nor the wider party. Outside the Shadow Cabinet, on the left, UNITE leader Len McCluskey opposed a new referendum while the equally pro-Corbyn TSSA union strongly backed it. On the right wing, those who defected to create Change UK supported a new referendum while Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart had gone so far as to endorse Brexit and Johnson right from the beginning. There was a left-wing campaign called Love Socialism,Hate Brexit, and on Twitter #PCPEU -ProCorbynProEU, as well as the more centrist Labour Movement for Europe. Of course, many Labour Party members were involved with the massive People’s Vote demonstrations in London. Jeremy’s backroom staffers were divided.
Keir Starmer started off as being opposed to a second referendum but came round to that position when he saw the way things were going, both in terms of the negotiations and what they were likely to lead to as an outcome, and in terms of the shifts in public opinion and party members opinion. At the 2018 party conference in Liverpool, faced with hundreds of motions from constituencies calling for a new referendum, he brokered a compromise resolution that for the first time mentioned the possibility of a new referendum and he got a standing ovation when he said that nobody was ruling out remaining in the EU.
UKICE: Do you think those demonstrations and that campaign had a substantial effect on members of the Shadow Cabinet and the Labour Party more generally, moving it into a more pro-referendum place?
RC: Yes, for some of them, but not all. One of them, I can’t remember who it was now, famously dismissed the demonstrations as the longest ever Waitrose queue, portraying them as comfortable, middle-class demonstrators. But that wasn’t actually accurate. They involved a very wide cross-section.
None of this went unnoticed by Shadow Cabinet and NEC members. It didn’t shift views of those with hard-line positions, but it certainly encouraged others.
UKICE: There were some MPs representing areas like the one you did in the European Parliament, like Caroline Flint for example, who would say, ‘People did know what they were voting for, and Labour has got to show that it is prepared to listen to them and get on with Brexit’.
Did you have much sympathy for that position? Or did you think that people had been sold such a false prospectus that their hopes would be disappointed?
RC: In a way, you are asking the old question that goes back to Burke: as an elected representative, are you there as a delegate, or to use your judgement? MPs like Caroline took one view. Just down the road from her in Wakefield, Mary Creagh took the opposite view. These tensions where there.
Ultimately, I took the view that it’s a question of standing up for what you believe in, and what you think is the right course of action for the country and trying to persuade people. Especially when it’s a discussion where there was so much fake news and false information put about. You can’t just say, ‘Well, if people believe that, then you’ve got to accept it’, when what they’ve been told is manifestly nonsense – at least not without having an opportunity to say: ’Hang on a minute. Think about this argument, look at that allegation. This is wrong’.
By analogy, take climate change: if you represent an area where people don’t believe the science, but you do, should you really start saying that we should abandon our policies on climate change because that’s what my voters want? Or should you continue to make the case, knowing the consequences of abandoning such a policy?
UKICE: What discussions were you having back in Brussels and Strasbourg with your counterparts in the Socialist Group in the European Parliament? Were you discussing the evolving Labour position with them?
Were they at all influential on Jeremy Corbyn, who seemed to quite often go to some of those meetings of the European socialist parties?
RC: I thought it was good that Jeremy went to meet his colleagues from Labour’s sister parties and their leaderships, because it immersed him a little bit in the pro-European socialist environment and the arguments in favour of the European Union from a socialist perspective.
It also was an opportunity for some of them to put pressure on him to say, ‘Look this is a dreadful mistake for Britain and for Europe. If you do have a chance to reverse it, you should. We will support you’. That was helpful and I encouraged a number of them to do so.
On my side, I was also anxious to talk to socialist leaders and the MEPs in the Parliament to give Britain time. When it came to having the various extensions of the Brexit deadline, I was always saying, ‘Give an extension. Make it a long extension’. I stood in for Jeremy at one of the socialist leaders’ meetings and exhorted the various Prime Ministers and party leaders there to bear with us and support a long extension
When he became PM, Johnson didn’t want to ask for an extension, but Parliament had passed legislation requiring him to do so. He sent off the letter without actually signing it, which then went to the European Council in October 2019, where most national leaders wanted a year-long extension because they were fed up with repeatedly having to extend it for another few months at a time.
That was blocked only by (Emmanuel) Macron, which is why it was extended only until the end of January 2020. One wonders what might have happened had it been a year’s extension, by which time we would have been right in the middle of the Covid pandemic, and so another extension would have probably been unavoidable. Who knows what extra time might have done? It’s pure speculation. But I still think it was regrettable that Macron imposed such a narrow timetable when we were on the point of possibly forcing Johnson to put his Brexit deal to a referendum.
Because remember, in Autumn 2019, Johnson was still not able to force his new deal through Parliament. It was essentially Theresa May’s deal with some minor changes, except on the point of Northern Ireland, where of course he famously said, ‘Great Britain leaves the custom union, but Northern Ireland doesn’t’. Thereby creating a border down the Irish Sea, which he minimised at the time, selling his new deal as the way to get Brexit done.
But at that point, he was still not able to get it through Parliament, because he didn’t get his timetabling motion through. The timetabling motion failing meant there would be several weeks of debate and amendments. At that point, Nick Brown, the Labour Chief Whip, said to me, ‘We are three votes away from getting a majority for an amendment for putting it to a referendum – and I can tell you as Chief Whip we have ways and means of getting those votes. We can do that’.
But at that point the Liberal Democrats accepted an election, overestimating their position after the European elections and thinking that they had a golden opportunity to supplant Labour as the main opposition party, if not actually win. They gave priority to (they hoped) improving their party strength to stopping Brexit.
So, they allowed Johnson to call an early election where we know what happened. Britain doesn’t have a proportional electoral system. Johnson united almost all the Leave vote and won 43%. Some 53% voted for parties demanding another referendum, but they were split over Labour, the LibDems, the Greens, Plaid Cymru, SNP and so on, and Johnson won a majority of seats. At the same time, he removed many of his internal party critics by removing the whip from them and replacing them with more amenable candidates. The remaining pro-European Conservatives were reduced to a rump.
It was a fatal mistake to allow him to call an early election in those circumstances, just when there was a chance at least of forcing his hand to say, ‘Right, if you want to get this deal ratified you have to put it to the public, because you can’t get it through Parliament’.
UKICE: Were you at all involved with any of those earlier cross-party attempts to thwart Brexit, such as the various Cooper Letwin moves and various other things going on in Parliament after Theresa May’s initial meaningful vote failed? Were you at all consulted on what might be happening in Europe by any of the Labour movers and shakers there?
RC: To a degree, because even before I became leader in the European Parliament, I was active in the Labour Movement for Europe (of which I was a former national Chair) and in the cross-party European Movement (which I did chaired in 2017), and I was involved in some of the cross-party networks that were set up. There was one called Where Next for Brexit? which I helped set up with a former Conservative MEP, Edward McMillan-Scott, which was a regular meeting of representatives from the various campaigning organisations from the European Movement to Open Britain, some trade unionists and so on and MPs, normally held in a room I booked in the EP London office on Smith Square.
Once I became leader of the Labour MEPs, I spent more time in Westminster than I did in the European Parliament during much of that period. Besides the Shadow Cabinet, I went to a lot of the backbench meetings. I wasn’t involved in the direct frontbench to frontbench negotiations, because that was for Keir (Starmer) and Jeremy and so on, but I was involved in the Shadow Cabinet discussions which mandated them.
There was also a group of some 80 or more active backbench Labour pro Europeans whose meetings I frequently participated in.
And I shared my constituency office in Leeds with Hilary Benn, who became Chair of the Commons Brexit committee.
All these involved discussions on Commons tactics and other aspects of the Brexit saga.
The Brexit Process in the European Parliament
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Just looking back at that period when you were in the European Parliament, after the referendum up until you left, did you feel that your influence in the European Parliament diminished? Did you feel your role as an MEP change in that time?
Richard Corbett (RC): No. We were all a bit surprised by that. At least on our side, amongst the Labour members within the Socialist Group – but I think this is true for the Liberals and the Greens as well – our colleagues continued to treat us as fully fledged members, like everybody else. Of course, they knew there was perhaps a glimmer of hope that Brexit might yet not happen, but irrespective of whether they thought that was likely or not, they still treated us as fully fledged members.
Any cold shouldering was really directed at those MEPs who had campaigned for Brexit and supported it, the UKIP ones obviously, and a minority of the Conservative MEPs.
In fact, even after the European elections of 2019, Claude Moraes, a Labour MEP, was re-elected to chair a major parliamentary committee. We were kept fully involved, and not just in a formalistic sense. We were given responsibilities that need not have been given to Labour MEPs, and the same for the Liberals and the Greens.
UKICE: How did you compare the way in which Michel Barnier and his team involved the European Parliament in their side of the Brexit negotiations, as opposed to the way in which the Theresa May and Johnson governments were involving the UK Parliament? Did you have any view on the handling of both sides?
RC: The differences were quite striking. When it comes to international agreements signed by the European Union, the European Parliament has to give its consent, which is not usually the case for the House of Commons.
Perhaps because of that, the negotiators for the EU – normally the Commission – keeps the Parliament fully in the loop during those negotiations. That applied in this case too. Given the importance of the issue, the European Parliament set up a Brexit Steering Group with a member from each of the mainstream political groups, chaired by Guy Verhofstadt.
For its initial meetings I was invited as well, until we got the first resolution in place that set out Parliament’s position. Then the negotiations started, so it was felt perhaps to be inappropriate for me to stay on it and for the Socialist Group to have two representatives, me as well as the official one.
I occasionally had meetings with Barnier and members of his team. They were always very open with information. It was a complete contrast to Westminster, where there was no such openness towards ordinary members of parliament.
UKICE: What did the MEPs make of the final Withdrawal Agreement between Barnier and the UK team?
Weren’t some MEPs quite concerned that Barnier conceded too much in terms of the Northern Ireland backstop, that it would actually make it too easy for the UK to retain access without the commensurate obligations.
RC: I think the prevailing view was that Barnier had done a good job. The deal was regrettable because of the positions that Britain had taken, in terms of it being such a hard Brexit. On Northern Ireland and the protocol, that was not a problem from a European Parliament point of view or indeed a European Union point of view, because it was seen as a way of avoiding what everybody said they wanted to avoid: a hard border on the land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
The Irish government was satisfied with it. The EP was satisfied with it. We knew it would mean checks between Northern Ireland and the UK, but at that point the UK government accepted that, even if they didn’t want to advertise it.
UKICE: What about the May deal? If you talk to people like Gavin Barwell, they would say that the EU was happier with the Johnson deal, which went back to its first idea of a separate Northern Ireland protocol, rather than the one that Theresa May and Olly Robbins had got them to move towards.
RC: Yes, the May deal, keeping the whole of the UK inside the customs union (temporarily but without a deadline) was indeed seen on the EU side as a major concession. The EU was saying, ‘Okay, you can stay in the customs union without fully committing to following Single Market rules’. It was conceded to avoid the problem of creating a hard border on the island of Ireland. Johnson’s formula of keeping only N.Ireland in the customs union did likewise, but was seen by the EU as less risky for the integrity of the EU Single Market. But it was Johnson’s choice to do it that way, because the ERG would not countenance any continued British participation in the customs union, despite the EU having accepted that.
UKICE: We’ve heard that European leaders were quite frustrated during this time about the fact that they had many of other difficult issues to be dealing with, but were having to spend so much time focusing on Brexit. Was that an attitude shared by the European Parliament, as well as the non-UK MEPs?
RC: I think this was indeed an issue in the European Council, where you’ve got heads of state or governments from 27 countries, with a lot on their plates, having to devote hours and hours getting to grips with arcane details and with difficult situations. There was some resentment there.
In the European Parliament, where MEPs work full-time on European issues, not part-time like Prime Ministers, they are more amenable to getting into the detail. Even then, the Brexit Steering Group did most of the work. Most MEPs were happy with what it was doing and didn’t need to spend an enormous amount of time on it, feeding particular points of concern into it via parliamentary committees or political groups.
UKICE: One of the consequences of Theresa May’s second extension, from April to the end of October 2019, was the UK having to participate in European Parliament elections. Had you regarded it as inevitable that those EP elections would take place?
RC:. I thought the government might try and wriggle out of it, but legally it would have required negotiating a protocol, and obtaining quick national ratification of it by all member states, that would provide for the UK to not take part in those elections and instead fill its seats in the European Parliament with members of its own national parliament. This would be by analogy with what happens when a country joins the European Union: it at first sends MEPs from its national parliament until it has its first European elections. This would have been the other way round. But it was too late and too difficult to do that.
UKICE: Did you get a sense that was ever discussed in the UK government?
RC: They were aware of it. We regularly had delegations of MPs coming out to Brussels and had meetings with them and I remember explaining to them how this could be done (and even teasing some of them that they might become MEPs). But the government never took it up, presumably because the time needed for negotiating it and get it speedily ratified by everyone would have required starting the process well before the government was prepared to admit that an extension to the Article 50 deadline was necessary.
So the elections happened and they were an opportunity for the public to express itself. The Conservatives went down to three seats. The pro-Brexit voters rallied at that point behind the Brexit Party, but their total (29 seats) was far lower than the total of Labour, Liberals, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru (37 seats). In percentage terms, the Brexit supporting parties (Conservatives, Brexit Party and UKIP) got a total of 42.5%.
But these elections were also a warning to Labour, which lost an enormous number of voters to parties with a clearer Remain position. Labour was actually overtaken by the Lib Dems and nearly by the Greens. It lost more than three times as many of its 2017 voters to them than it did to the Brexit Party.
UKICE: What was your reading of these elections? Obviously, one of the consequences was Theresa May looking even more wounded than ever and standing down. We then saw the Conservatives turning to Boris Johnson as the person who could rescue them from the appeal of the Brexit Party. What did you think when you saw the outcomes of those European elections, and what that meant for the course of Brexit?
RC: I think they showed that there was every chance of winning a second referendum, but they also had the knock-on effect of May being replaced by Johnson. It hadn’t been obvious beforehand that it would be Johnson.
With Johnson, you never know what he is going to do. But he did clearly grasp that shifting to a harder line Brexit and making a deal with Farage would recover Brexit Party votes for the Tories, unite most Brexit supporting votes behind them, while anti-Brexit votes were split over several parties. In the British electoral system, if you have got your nose ahead even on a minority of the votes you can win the majority of the seats. He grasped that very clearly.
The difficulty for him was getting the election rather than being forced to concede a referendum. As I mentioned earlier, Parliament repeatedly blocked his attempts to have an early election until that point where the Lib Dems conceded one, miscalculating that they would do rather well. That is something that had not been predicted.
The UK and the EU after Brexit
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): What was your reading of the December 2019 General Election? Did Labour lose because it failed to back Brexit and instead called for a new referendum?
Richard Corbett (RC): The idea that Labour would have done better had it supported the Tory Brexit deal and not offered the public a say on the final outcome is wrong.
Almost every opinion poll in 2019 showed a majority would vote to Remain in a new referendum. And in the general election, some 53% voted for parties demanding a new referendum – so it was far from being an unpopular position. Johnson, meanwhile, got 43% for the Conservatives – only 1% more than Theresa May did in 2017. He won his majority of seats because of the way the votes split among the parties, not because of any Brexit-supporting surge.
Where Labour fell short on the Brexit front (which was not the only issue, of course, but a major one) was on the perceived ambiguity about its position, which caused Labour to lose voters to other Remainer parties – not as much as in the European Parliament election, but enough to cost us dozens of seats in this one.
This was because the party position was indeed to have another referendum, but with a complicated caveat, namely to say, ‘We’ll first negotiate to get a better deal and then put that to the public to choose between that better deal or Remain’.
This perhaps had a certain logic in that, as one of the options in a new referendum is to Leave, then it would be good to have a less damaging deal than the Conservative deal we were so critical of. But frankly, it was too complicated a position to easily explain, and it was vulnerable to attack as being ambiguous – might a Labour government getting a better deal decide to back Brexit on those terms? And some in the Labour Party, including party chair and campaign manager Ian Lavery, wanted to talk up that ambiguity to placate Leave voters.
But I was at the Labour Party NEC meeting after the general election that pored over the results. It was clear that we had again lost more voters to parties with a clearer Remain position. The Lib Dems and the Greens went up by over five per cent – far more than the Tory rise of 1 per cent – mostly at Labour’s expense, as they attacked us for being too weak in opposing Brexit.
A clearer Remain position, properly and articulately advocated and explained by the leadership, would have secured a better result. Even in the so-called ‘red wall’, there were a dozen seats that were lost by Labour to the Tories by a smaller margin than the number of previous Labour voters who switched to the Lib Dems and the Greens. Labour would have done better to keep those votes and work harder at persuading the Leavers. Had we made the case week in, week out, instead of hiding from it or mouthing that we’d take a final position after the election once we’d got a new deal, the number of Labour Leavers would have shrunk and we would also have retained more Remainers. Instead, in a forlorn attempt to placate Leavers, we lost far more Remainers.
You still hear facile stereotypes that are bandied about, such as the claim that working class voters were overwhelmingly pro-Brexit or that it is a north-south division. In the 2016 referendum, most working-class people in work voted Remain, while most working-class voters not in work, mostly retired, voted Leave – a more subtle division than portrayed. And as for the north, it had much the same division between cities and small towns as the south – Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, York, Newcastle all voted Remain, and the most northern part of the UK – Scotland, where a Labour desperately needs a comeback – was overwhelmingly Remain.
Offering a second referendum was not simply an electoral tactic, it was the right thing to do. Faced not just with Brexit, but a particularly damaging deal, Labour was right to insist that something so different from what was promised should go back to the people to be endorsed or rejected, even Labour had formed a government and been able to attenuate it. To have backed away from offering a public vote would have been plain wrong and made Labour look unprincipled.
UKICE: What was it like going back into the European Parliament when you were not sure how long you would be there? Particularly with the big contingent of Brexit Party MEPs there. What was that period like?
RC: It was in many senses strange. But we were of course pleased to be back. We were there with a new lease of life, which we knew might be short but was better than nothing. And we were fighting for it to be longer.
As I said, on our side of the house we were well treated by our colleagues, who showed they had considerable respect for us.
UKICE: What was it like when you finally realised that time was up, and the UK was going to leave the European institutions on 31 January 2020? Was saying goodbye and disbanding your office a painful process?
RC: Yes, it was very painful. During the last session in January 2020, we were at a Parliament sitting in Brussels and there were a number of goodbye events. We weren’t the only ones in tears. A lot of our colleagues, whom we had been working with for many years, were very unhappy. It was a very emotional week.
Within the Parliament itself, there was a question of what, immediately after that vote, to do to mark the occasion? Should we have some speeches? Bearing in mind that Farage and his lot were likely to be cheering and making a noise.
I think it was the German Green MEP Terry Reintke who came up with the idea that the Parliament should rise and sing Auld Lang Syne, the French version being of course being ‘ce n’est q’un au revoir’. That was agreed among the political groups and by EP President David Sassoli, who sadly died earlier this year, who acquiesced that the Parliament would do that.
That worked quite nicely, because it showed everybody standing together, linking arms, in a really heartfelt moment. It drowned out the cheers of the Brexit Party mob. My colleague Rory Palmer, Labour MEP for the East Midlands, had come up with this idea of making scarves saying “Forever United” with the Union Jack at one end and the European Union flag at the other, that many MEPs wore. It was a very moving moment.
UKICE: What do you think about prospects for future engagement, maybe with a Labour Government, maybe through the Parliamentary Partnership Assembly? Do you think there is a basis for positive co-operation between the UK Parliament and the EP in the future?
RC: Well possibly. Firstly, on that Assembly, we’ll see what its members want to use it for. Some – and I note for example that Dan Hannan is on it – will want to use it as a forum to pursue conflicts. Not necessarily conflicts with the EU, but British party conflicts, because every time others on the UK side say, ‘It would be a good idea if the UK re-joins Erasmus’, or something similar, they’ll go to the media and say, ‘Ah see, they are trying to sabotage Brexit. They are in cahoots with the EU’. If that’s what they want to do, then it’s not going to be a very fruitful body. But otherwise in general I think it’s very good to have re-established contacts.
Much depends on what happens in the wider debate in Britain. Remember what I said earlier about public opinion not rallying behind the referendum result? The same seems to be happening now that we’ve actually left the EU. You’d expect public opinion to say, ‘That’s settled. We move on.’ which is what most politicians are saying, but some opinion polls still indicate a lot of opposition to it. Even ‘Re-join’ had a majority in one of those polls recently.
If public opinion continues to be sceptical about Brexit, that makes it easier for a future government to say, ‘At the very least we should reverse some of the more damaging things. Can’t we make a deal to stay in Europol or in Erasmus? Could we have greater participation in the Single Market?’
Given the demographics of attitudes towards Europe in terms of age, and the continued drip drip drip drip of visible problems, from lorries queuing at Dover to extra costs and inconveniences, opinion could well harden. And who knows? British opinion has sometimes swung completely against something it initially backed. Think of Suez. Think of Iraq more recently. Think of the Munich Agreement historically. Nobody defends these things these days.
If Brexit comes to be widely seen as a national error, and if that becomes the received wisdom of 60% or more of the public, then that will make it easier for a future government to at the very least try and rebuild some sort of closer relationship with the EU and maybe even open the question of re-joining. Already now, the European Movement is campaigning for it and seeing a huge growth in its membership.
UKICE: Based on your knowledge of your European counterparts do you think they would be up for the UK re-joining? Or would they only be in favour once we’ve been through rather a long period and have an overwhelming majority of the population seeing this as a mistake?
RC: They would love to see us re-join, as long as it doesn’t mean going through this whole saga again. They’d want to be reassured that the change of heart was not likely to be reversed once again a few years later. But in general, yes, they would.
It wasn’t a good thing for the EU to lose a member state for the first time in its history, particularly a significant one. Brexit is an economic cost to the EU as well, not just to Britain. If you look at a map of Europe, not having Britain is a big gap, not just in terms of maps but also politically. With France and Germany, Britain was in many ways part of a balanced tripod. In the eyes of many of the smaller member states, having one leg of that tripod removed means that there is a fear of domination by Germany, or Germany and France together, that wasn’t there before.
UKICE: Do you think that in the EU there was too many people who thought that the UK would think twice, particularly if the EU took a hard line, and that meant that the EU didn’t actually think about what a good, strategic, long-term relationship with a non-member UK would look like? Do you think the EU thought enough about the repercussions of a major member state deciding to give up the benefits of membership?
RC: It was a shock to the EU that a country wanted to leave. The fact that it was Britain perhaps lessened that shock, because Britain was sometimes seen by some of them as a half-hearted member anyway. But the fear of it triggering similar Exits, as Farage boasted it would, has receded. The various Eurosceptic parties in France, Denmark, the Netherlands and elsewhere saw what happened to Britain after Brexit and moderated their position. Most of them are no longer asking for their own country to leave the EU. Seeing the upheavals, the complications and the complexity of that course of action has not encouraged others to follow it.
In terms of reflecting on what sort of relationship to build with Britain as a non-member, they see this as depending on Britain. Their door is open to British participation in research programmes, Erasmus, space cooperation, technical agencies and police cooperation. They would be prepared to make deals to facilitate market access. They want a close strategic relationship. But on all these things and more, they currently see a British government that seems to actively want to sever ties of all kinds.