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It is not only a ticking clock Theresa May can hear, but a ticking time bomb on Brexit talks

6 min read

Writing for PoliticsHome, Labour MP Seema Malhotra urges the Prime Minister to have a realistic strategy in order to get a good deal for Britain.

If you’re going to play hardball in high stakes negotiations, you better know what you’re talking about.

Only a few weeks into the formal negotiations for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, it’s with good reason that even a number of May’s own backbenchers are concerned about the Prime Minister’s negotiating strategy and her consequent ability to deliver a good deal for Britain. She set out with a Hard Brexit poker face and now the veneer, like her majority, has vanished.

Whether Leaver or Remainer, we can all agree that the prime minister must deliver on a deal that meets the needs of our economy, our businesses, our environment and our health service, and makes sure that living standards of British people do not fall behind that of our European neighbours. We should not have to rely on blind faith that this will be achieved.

Yet the Prime Minister already seems set to lose the remaining goodwill and the productive climate necessary to make a success of negotiations for Britain. The country will hold her responsible for the opportunities lost through agreements we could have reached were she to take a more pragmatic and less combative approach. Uncertainty and ideology are now set to become the twin architects of weaker UK economy.

If we are to achieve a good deal for Britain – and a good deal for the EU also that sees mutual benefit to our closest trading partner – we needed to begin negotiations with goodwill and maintain the momentum. We have lost nearly two months since Sir Tim Barrow delivered the letter to trigger Article 50 but the rest of the EU have no intention of the process slowing down. The Tories needed to have their plan ready to go, but instead called an election. Their misjudgement of the British people was itself a sign that we should be cautious about their judgement of the EU.

The Labour Party – albeit with differences that parts of the party may have – is in truth nowhere near as split as the Tories. Labour has been prepared from the off-set with a set of priorities on the economy, social and workplace rights and the environment that has remained consistent and has maintained vital dialogue with other EU nations. We have called on the Government to immediately guarantee the rights of the three million EU citizens living the UK firstly because it is the right thing to do, but secondly because it sends an early message of goodwill. This also was the unanimous recommendation of the Brexit Select Committee on which I sit.

The Prime Minister has ignored all advice to begin negotiations in a positive, pragmatic and cooperative way and instead has been rapidly losing friends across Europe. So far the Prime Minister has offered a plan for EU citizens which EU leaders have said are “vague, inadequate and below our expectations”. Former Chancellor George Osborne said earlier this week that as Home Secretary, Theresa May “blocked” a unilateral offer of guaranteeing citizenship to those concerned in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum. Cooperation and mutual respect are needed on both sides. Her approach is not helping our cause in the corridors of the Commission or with Michel Barnier and his team.

Similarly, we need to be realistic – and indeed honourable – in accepting that we will have to make a contribution to the EU budget if we are still to benefit from our relationship with the EU.

In July last year, soon after the referendum result, I laid out a six-point plan for Brexit in a joint article with Stephen Kinnock MP. One of these points was to make an early recognition that we will have to make a contribution to the budget. Britain is, or should be, a country that pays its debts and pays its way. Instead of an honest recognition of this and evidence based negotiation, we see our esteemed Foreign Secretary telling the EU to “go whistle” over the payments. In Brussels this was unsurprisingly met with little more than contempt. Michel Barnier rebutted, "I am not hearing any whistling, just a clock ticking." The reality for us is that it’s not only a ticking clock but a ticking time bomb on our country’s social cohesion and a generation of economic prosperity.

In the same article I advocated a more pragmatic approach including greater controls around the freedom of movement and for that to be a condition on which we stay in a reformed single market. I fail to see why that cannot be possible with some political will and visionary leadership. There does in some quarters appear to be a growing view that our European counterpart would be willing to meet us “half way”. We should take a path forward that seeks to keep what works with Europe – and clearly addresses the issues have been which led people to vote leave.

The Euratom debate over the last week has also brought this into sharp relief – as Bob Neill MP said in response to me when I pointed out no one on the doorstep had said they wished us to leave Euratom, “I’m sure that’s the case and it didn’t come up with me. I must say I spoke to a biochemist in the health service over the weekend who voted to leave but said “well I certainly didn’t think we were going to go about leaving in such a rigid fashion that we would run into difficulties like this.” There is a clear and present danger that the result of the EU referendum is now read by hard Brexiteers as a green light for all their ambitions.

If you are going to gamble the nation’s prosperity on playing a hard game, you had best play it well. A big message from the election was for Theresa May to not ignore the public or Parliament. The start of the journey of the Great Repeal Bill – published on a one-line whip Thursday and leaked to the media before Parliament doesn’t bode well. Brussels sees an interim Prime Minister with no power and a divided cabinet all at sea trying to make sure their own political agenda doesn’t drown. People who voted to leave in the referendum did not vote to be poorer. They won’t thank a government that makes them so. Theresa May said we are leaving the EU, not Europe, but her isolationism makes it likely that a frustrated EU does indeed leave us behind.

Seema Malhotra is Labour MP for Feltham and Heston. 

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