Mon, 15 April 2024

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Remainers must engage with the new reality - and prepare for what comes next

6 min read

The same patriotic optimism that led the UK into the European Union must now be applied to what comes next, says Labour MP Peter Kyle.

Today will be a profoundly sad moment for millions of people who supported Britain's membership of the European Union, much more-so for many than that sinking feeling you get when the party you just voted for at a general election loses. 

The reasons some came to loathe the EU were often the same reasons that others, like me, loved it. Pooling sovereignty to strike trade deals and the alignment of our economies were never signs of weakness but strength. 

As an unabashed patriot I always saw our active role within the EU as an act of British patriotism as it enhanced our power and influence, extended out cultural reach, and provided an economic platform of such strength that it enabled us to simultaneously become the global leader in financial services and rebirth our manufacturing sector for the modern age by harnessing the power of borderless trade across 28 nations. 

So just as Brexit represented an opportunity for a fundamental rethink of British sovereignty for those who supported Leave, it is just as existential for Remainers. Brexit was never a single-issue campaign, it is comprehensive and touches on the identity of people throughout our society. 

Peace in Northern Ireland was party achieved by a settlement that allowed people to ‘feel’ British, Irish, or both without ever being forced to chose. Britain’s membership of the EU allowed millions of Britons and settled EU citizens to do the same.

But now people across our country are being forced to consider their own identity and in many cases settle it legally. Crises of identity are never springboards to stability, often quite the opposite, so a political class that has so often been found wanting has its work cut out as we move forwards. And move forward we must.

Tonight we’ll leave the EU but Brexit will be far from done. There won’t be any meaningful change until the end of the year when we leave the regulatory, customs, and economic frameworks, then skate with outstretched arms towards the rest of the world on the thinnest of ice and without any idea who, if anyone, will be there to welcome us. 

The sadness many of us feel at this prospect cannot last for long because there is much for us to do. The same patriotic optimism that led us into the EU must now be applied to what comes next. Those of us who support the EU cannot, under any circumstances, will the failure of Britain in order to prove we were right.

What worries me most when I look to the coming months is the entire absence of any comprehensive vision for Britain outside of the EU. Slogans like ‘global Britain’ don’t tell British students if they can work abroad visa-free when they graduate. They don’t tell firms where our competitive advantage will be in five years' time so they can prepare. And they don’t tell the rest of the world what kind of partner we aspire to be. Starting now, this is what we should put our energy into.

The single market is still the biggest destination for British products and services. The EU is still the political body that represents most closely the British values we hold most dear. For this reason we need to fight hard for a productive relationship with the EU into the future, one that is reciprocal in terms of trade and mutually respectful when it comes to diplomacy. This can only be achieved with the active support of Remainers. Opposing everything is not a strategy for rejoining, only economic hardship and another round of political crisis. 

Just as we were with Huawei, Britain will increasingly be the rope in a tug-of-war between the real global giants, China and the US. Without consensus on where we’re heading as a country, a consensus that involves the public and not imposed on it, each battle will be taken in isolation and Britain will find it hard to be strategic and gift our economy with the stability it craves. 

Ever since the 2016 the landscape of British politics has undergone a jolting series of transformations. The referendum itself; the signing of Article 50 before having a negotiating position; Theresa May’s red lines; the ‘Chequers deal’; and ultimately the last two general elections - each of these events created new political reality. Those who came closest to success during this time were the people who moved with the times and exploited political opportunities as they emerged. People who doggedly clung to the same proposition throughout soon looked dated.

The lesson from this period is simple: we need to move with the times. I believe Britain’s long-term future is best served within the union of nations with which we’re closest, both geographically and culturally. But our weary nation would not reward us for a campaign to rejoin before those who won the right to explore the potential of Britain outside of the EU have had the chance to prove it can work in practice. 

Our sole contribution in this time cannot be one of of waiting for government to fail, or even to suggest something that we oppose by default. It rests with us to articulate our vision of a 21st century Britain, aligned with our most fruitful market but actively seeking and exploiting opportunities wherever they emerge. We don’t just need to have faith in our country, we need to show the country we have it too.

And we must be smart too. Just as the politics has changed in the past so it will do again. When we finally leave later this year the economy will finally be exposed to the cold of outer space, sometimes called ‘WTO’. After that the full realties of the compromises we’ll need to make in return for trade deals will emerge. Each of these moments, and more, will cause the political landscape to shift once more but in what direction we don’t yet know. 

Right now I’d guess that anyone who’s spent the previous year sulking won’t earn the right to a good hearing from the public which is why the sadness we feel today and in the coming days must soon be channelled in a new and more constructive direction. 

There is a vision for a better future that doesn’t involve the isolation many Brexiteers crave. We need to find it and adapt it as the circumstances allow. Everything is to play for. A new dawn is breaking but is isn’t necessarily the one Boris Johnson expects.

Peter Kyle is the Labour Member of Parliament for Hove.

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