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We must not fall for the traps that May is setting

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Geraint Talfan Davies

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of Wales for Europe and the author of Unfinished Business, Journal of an Embattled European.

Later today (Tuesday) Wales for Europe and representatives of local groups from every part of Wales will meet MPs and peers at Westminster to demand a People’s Vote. Geraint Talfan Davies, Chair of Wales for Europe sets out their concerns about the Government’s proposed deal.

In years to come – or it may be only weeks or months – we will look back on the deal that has been negotiated between the UK and the EU as an orphan. Mrs May may well be the last to disown it, but in time even its mother, Theresa, will do so. 

One would not want to be unkind to orphans, but there is nothing in this deal to like. Mrs May and any other Cabinet members who can be persuaded to make lukewarm noises in public will try to convince the public and MPs that this is a ‘strong and stable’ basis on which to chart our future and bring peace and harmony to these islands. Yet, even she cannot bring herself to say it is better than the status quo.

Her ‘letter to the nation’ is little more than a ploy to coax the public into a number of mental traps that she has set. Not to be outdone, the Leader of the Opposition has some of his own. What are they?

Trap 1: That this is a deal at all

What has been agreed is not even a divorce settlement, merely the terms for a separation and, in the words of Jeremy Hunt, a ‘mandate for negotiations’. The division of spoils and the fate of the children – whole industries, business, researchers, students – are to be haggled over for years to come. Far from signalling the end of the tedious dominance of Brexit in our public discourse, it guarantees its continuance. 

Trap 2: That this is a negotiation between equals

The outcome has been entirely predictable. Whatever is said by Mrs May, or even by other EU leaders keen to be diplomatic, it has not been a score-draw. It is what happens when a country of 65 million pits itself against a continent-wide economic and political bloc of 500 million that already commands dozens of trade deals with the rest of the world and whose members, quite understandably, believe in the paramount importance of their own union. 

Expect the same thing to happen when we drag ourselves through years of negotiations on the real substance, our hand getting ever weaker as time goes on.

Trap 3: That this is a ‘sensible compromise’

The last resort of those who are on the back foot is to claim that if two opposing sides are against something, what is on offer must have struck a right and sensible compromise. This has no basis either in formal logic, in common sense or in practical politics.  It is, rather, a delusion. A deal that leaves almost everyone unhappy simply stores up trouble for the future.

Neither those who want to see us fully part of Europe, nor those who bellow ‘global Britain’, nor those who have argued that our membership of the EU has involved a ‘democratic deficit’, are going to be assuaged by a deal that will see this country permanently fretting outside the door of European councils on almost every issue. Leavers also object to the curbing of our freedom to make deals elsewhere.

Yes, if negotiations go well, we may well have an input to a variety of things at various stages of discussion, but never in the final decision-making chamber. How on earth this can be construed as ‘Taking back control’ is beyond me.

Trap 4: That the deal is supported by Her Majesty’s Government

This is true only in a formal sense. In the Cabinet there are previous Remain supporters who have swallowed their objections for the sake of the party, although hardly for the sake of Conservative party unity – a will o’ the wisp if ever there was one. There are others who dislike the deal but are prepared to bide their time, in order to adopt a more extreme position only when the UK has exited. This dishonesty and deception will rot Government unity as well as the core of the proposition.

Trap 5: That the choice is between this deal and ‘no deal’

This is patently not the case. If the current agreement cannot survive a Commons vote, then a ‘no-deal’ proposition would surely be voted down by an even bigger majority. Neither is ‘no deal’ a proposition that would be welcomed by the European Union.  The deal on offer needs to be measured against the status quo, and it is interesting that in that assessment MPs as disparate as John Redwood and Dominic Raab  (Brexit true believers), Labour’s Stephen Doughty and Plaid’s Liz Saville-Roberts (both solid Remainers) are all agreed that the status quo is preferable.

Trap 6: That Labour would negotiate a better deal

This is a fantasy on two counts. First, it is very unlikely that Labour will get itself into a position to test this proposition. A combination of Conservative Party self-interest and the Fixed Term Parliaments Act will put paid to that. Second, even if that hurdle could be overcome, the notion that Labour could negotiate a softer Brexit with a European Union that must already be tired of this ‘perfidious Albion” is extremely doubtful.

Trap 7: That a General Election would be better than a People’s Vote

Even if one were to accept the Labour leadership’s current reasoning, it would remain false. First, General Elections wrap up many issues in large bundles. It is always difficult to derive from them clear verdicts on single issues. A sound argument can be made that a decision made in a referendum should be unpicked only in a new referendum.

But, second, one doesn’t have to choose between an election and a referendum. Any election manifesto that envisages further negotiation could and should also commit to a referendum on any new outcome. 

Trap 8: That the deal must be supported to ‘bring the country together’

This is the most beguiling falsehood of all, for who could possibly favour division and disharmony? Of course, we all want to see the country brought together. But is this a strategy that brings together the people of Northern Ireland? And the UK? What kind of unifying strategy is it that proceeds merely on the basis of an equality of offence given to both sides?

Brexit is not the only source of division in this country or the deepest. What will bring this country together are solutions to our manifold problems: low growth, low wages, lack of industrial investment, a housing crisis, the growing scandal of the homeless, declining public services and gross and offensive inequalities.

A blind Brexit is not the answer to any of these, but rather could make things worse. But a new, informed, definitive democratic decision, based on the fullest available particulars, might at least be a starting point for recovery and a new and genuine unity.