Instead of attempting to rerun the referendum, Labour should call for an arrangement similar to the Norwegian model, writes Fiona Twycross AM
Compared to this time last year it is fair to say most members of the public know a little bit more about the relationship between Norway and the European Union than they either ever wanted to or imagined.
Post-referendum, after much frenzied debate on the EU in parliament and after the triggering of article 50, membership of the European Economic Area – the Norwegian model – would be a welcome outcome to the Brexit negotiations for many of us. Yet it is something that Theresa May appears to have ruled out.
It is easy to believe that Brexit is something that affects the United Kingdom alone. However, the shock waves of the vote last summer are affecting politics more widely and the tone of the debate in national elections across Europe is being overshadowed and to a certain extent being defined by Brexit.
With a general election coming up in Norway, our northern neighbour is no different. The Norwegian Labour party’s recent decision to tone down support for the EU in its draft manifesto for this autumn’s general election is significant. Previous manifestos from Arbeiderpartiet had stated that membership in the EU would benefit Norway but this draft has dropped this commitment and has changed some of the wording around the EU and the EEA. The leader of the Norwegian Labour party, Jonas Gahr Støre, and the foreign affairs spokesperson, Anniken Huitfeldt, are both on the record as stating this reflects the current situation. An article in today’s Nationen, a Norwegian paper which campaigned against EU membership – highlights a political shift in Norway against the membership of the EEA itself among a number of other parties and the Norwegian TUC. This does not mean the end of the EEA or the EU clearly, just as Brexit does not automatically mean the end of the EU. It was, however, a significant tonal shift reflecting the reality that the EU may need a bit of a change of image and a workout to get match fit to survive the next few years.
Populism and nationalism in a post-Brexit world threaten the socially liberal assumptions many of us hold. Understanding why people here rejected the EU and accepting the result does not mean we need to water down liberal values. Liberal values are what gave women the vote almost one hundred years ago, they are what allowed Harold Wilson to liberalise a range of policy areas, from the death penalty, to fertility rights, to legalising homosexuality. Norway has maintained the ability to have both a proud and strong sense of national identity and be one of the most socially liberal countries in the world. It is possible for us to create a UK brand that defines a new sense of nationhood without descending in to nationalism. And if those of us with liberal values do not engage with this, we will concede the ground to those with more socially conservative or nationalistic tendencies.
We need to acknowledge that the mid-21st century is going to be a very different world than we imagined even a year ago. We also need to stop wringing our hands and start wracking our brains for how progressive politics can shape the future – how we can unite an increasingly divided nation. We will not do this by simply telling people who do not agree with us on Europe they were wrong.
I would love to put the clock back a year and have the opportunity for us to run a more convincing campaign on the benefits of remaining in the EU. At the London assembly, we have been hearing from businesses, trade unions and other communities about what they would like to see top of the list for negotiations – from protecting workers’ rights to having easy access to the single market, there have been no voices speaking out for a hard Brexit. Sadiq Khan as mayor has been at the forefront of pushing for the rights of EU citizens as Londoners, as the lords were in parliament. Pushing for this, pushing for arrangements as close as possible to those between the EU and Norway, not pushing for a rerun of the referendum is the priority.
Brexit is happening – it is putting strains on political decision making and the mood way beyond Westminster and way beyond our small, imperfect but wonderful island. Negotiations on the EU are not just between the EU and the prime minister but between the prime minister and parliament. Labour’s position that we should have access to the single market is the right one and the sooner the Labour party starts focussing fully on our future relations and arrangements between us and the EU, rather than using it as a proxy issue for other divisions the better.
Fiona Twycross is a member of the London assembly and chair of the London Fire Authority. She tweets @fionatwycross
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