Lord Kerr speaks to St Albans for Europe on 24 January 2018 and shares hard truths, some hope and a tight deadline
- “If you want to save the NHS, you have to stop Brexit”.
- We only have 14 months to change our minds and stay for free.
- 1 in 3 chance of a public vote on the deal in the autumn – but only if public opinion moves enough.
Squally weather couldn't deter a near-capacity crowd keen to hear from Lord Kerr, the man who drafted what became Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. The event, organised by St Albans for Europe, took place at Marlborough Road Methodist Church in St Albans.
The audience wanted to learn about Brexit's impact – and how it can still be stopped.
Lord Kerr explained that the European Union was intended to retain and ensure peace-time stability after WW2, and Article 50 was added later to actively demonstrate that the European Union was a voluntary club, requiring unanimous agreement.
This loophole to withdraw, which Leavers see as a portal to a mythical better place ̶ and Remainers see as a noose to strangle the country's future and world standing ̶ was originally conceived, said Lord Kerr, as a lasso following the election of a “very right-wing” Austrian president, acting out of sync with the EU. Simply storming out without some prior deal in place would have created chaos; Article 50 was included to ensure an orderly withdrawal.
While he has no guilt about writing the clause, Lord Kerr “never thought the UK would be mad enough to use it”.
With the benefit of his diplomatic background including both Washington and Brussels, Lord Kerr is adamant that the UK's choice between the US and the EU is a “stupid dichotomy”, and that “We are stronger in Washington because we are strong in the EU, and stronger in the EU because we are strong in Washington.”
As for that other trade super-power, China, he reports they're sad that we're leaving the EU because we brought a 'more free-trade-friendly influence'.
Professionally, Lord Kerr reiterated his belief that the UK will “shrink” if we leave. Personally he feels that it's “very sad... yes, a tragedy”, that the “effect of our leaving will hit hardest those already hit hardest by austerity”. He believes that the North East and North West of the UK, in particular, will be the most badly affected.
Disinvestment hasn't started – yet – but in an era of just-in-time manufacturing, adding customs delays and duties simply doesn't make sense; “it is an ineluctable rule that trade halves as distance increases”.
The Germans sell five times as much to the Chinese as we do, because the UK has downplayed engineering and we don't, he observes, “get out of that by getting out of the EU”.
We've already dropped to the bottom of European economic growth tables. And the much-vaunted sovereignty, beloved of Brexiteers? Lord Kerr quoted Chris Patten's pithy observation: “The man lost in the Sahara has absolute sovereignty, and will be dead tomorrow.”
Brexit is already damaging the NHS.
Lord Kerr stated “As tax-take goes down, money available for welfare and the NHS will drop. If you want to save the NHS, stop Brexit.” As a contributor during the Q&A pointed out, 10,000 health workers have already left the NHS, since the referendum, the squeeze on the pound is affecting purchasing power, and cutting-edge drugs are in danger of becoming unavailable. Lord Kerr identified that losing the European Medicines Agency, Europe's pharmaceutical standards regulator, was a huge blow to research hospitals in the UK and that we're going to lose a lot more of the same.
Leaving will mean we gain little and lose lots. So how do we get out of this mess?
As Lord Kerr stated in his Open Britain speech of November 2017, while we remain in the EU, it's perfectly legal for us to take back Article 50.
Furthermore, so long as we change our minds before we have actually left, we cannot be charged for doing so. The EU doesn't want us to leave, and President Macron and Chancellor Merkel have been vocal in insisting that “of course they can take it back”. It is unlikely we would be able to negotiate such favourable terms if we changed our minds after we’d left and were seeking re-entry as a third country.
What about a public vote on the final deal?
Right now, Lord Kerr doesn't believe that there's been enough movement towards the Remain side to warrant one. He identifies two big problems; Leavers who think that it's a done deal … and Remainers who think the same.
He sees the transition period as a ‘trap’, as this is a way of the Leave camp making sure the public “should not detect the consequences of leaving until after we've left”.
However, he predicts that, as the realities and negative effects of Brexit on jobs and the NHS continue to emerge, an increase in the number of Conservative “rebels” and a stark shift in Labour’s position this autumn would lead to the UK being given a public vote on the Brexit deal the UK government negotiates with Brussels. He feels there is a “1 in 3 chance” of Parliament giving the people the chance to have their say on the deal.
He stresses that Parliament won't move unless “pressure comes from the bottom up”. He advocates filling MPs' mailbags with letters about Brexit's consequences for employment; “You're my MP, what are you going to do about it?”
Lord Kerr did cite the Irish referendum on gay marriage, held May 2015, as a fantastic example of swaying public opinion. Shifting from 60% against, to 60% in favour, the message “Talk to your grandparents”, which encouraged gay couples to introduce their other halves to older relatives, had a powerful effect and is an example Remain campaigners could adopt.
What are the messages we need to get out?
Lord Kerr was very clear;
- Brexit is an attack on the NHS. “if you want to save the NHS, you have to avoid Brexit".
- ”Brexiteers are very keen that we should not detect the consequences of leaving until we have left.
- We will “cross the Rubicon” in March 2019 – so we only have 14 months to change our minds, even less to sway public opinion enough for a successful new public vote.
- New facts are emerging all the time. As a current EU member, we're allowed to change our minds ̶ and governments frequently do.
- The provision of an extension needs the agreement from ALL of the other countries in the EU. Lord Kerr feels we could get agreement for this if it is on the grounds that we’d “decided we need to consult the public, and we need time to do that”.
- The EU doesn't want us to go, and we can stay on the same terms (including the rebate) if we change our minds before we have left.
- When the final deal IS known, the country needs to decide, the question on the ballot paper being: “Do you buy this deal or shall we stay?”
And to close with Brexiteer David Davis's own words; "If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy".
By A. S. Pearse