Theresa May’s 12 point plan has put some meat on the bones of “Brexit means Brexit”. Baroness Dianne Hayter spoke to EURACTIV Slovakia before the prime minister’s speech about a number of issues, including freedom of movement, the next step for the Labour Party and how a post-Brexit UK will look.
Baroness Dianne Hayter sits in the House of Lords and is a Labour peer.
She spoke to EURACTIV.sk’s editor Zuzana Gabrižová.
Europe has a special psychological meaning for you, as you were born in West Germany where your father was stationed as a soldier. With this background and mind-set what were your thoughts the morning after the results of the referendum were announced?
The advantage I had over my colleagues is that I knew we were going to lose. I am actually Welsh and I had been in Wales and I knew we were going to lose. Most people were absolutely shocked that morning. To my generation it just seems like the end of the direction in which we have been moving since 1949. The end of a Europe without war, Europe without borders, a return to a different sort of Europe that had been there for two hundred years before. It was a feeling that the global clock had stopped. That progress, sometimes with ups and downs, but that had gone on throughout my life, had suddenly stopped and I could not see a way forward.
When you mention your current position, the shadow spokesperson for Britain exiting the EU, there is not much enthusiasm in your voice. What do you hope to achieve in this role? Forging a cross-party consensus on the process? Do you believe this is possible?
It is essential. Whether it is possible I do not know. I do think that as a country we are facing the biggest issue in my lifetime as I was not alive during World War II. We have to try and get a much more united British position. That is difficult because the three main players – Liam Fox, David Davis and Boris Johnson – were all in favour of Brexit. It is quite a difficult relationship to be able to work with people whose objectives for the country are very different.
What are your objectives?
I come out of the trade union movement. Then over the last ten years I worked much more with consumers. So I also look at the areas where Europe has been very good: for workers; the recognition of qualifications, parental leave, health and safety standards, and for consumers; I can buy a product which has been made in the Slovak Republic and I know it is safe. Also, if I have a complaint, there are ways of dealing with it. So, ordinary people have been helped enormously. And my worry about trying to get a coherent approach with the government is that the things that motivate me are not the same things not motivate those three gentleman I mentioned.
I do not put Theresa May in quite the same category. I do not think she is a hard-line anti-trade unionist, anti-consumer, anti-rights person. A lot will depend on what we can achieve and what are the dynamics within the Conservative party – between her and those “very free market” leaders.
You also mentioned that one of your personal ambitions is to make sure the social standards that were introduced by European legislation are not undermined in the process.
Yes, many of those will be easy to do. We could just put them in British law. If there is a directive on dispute resolution we can just put that into British law. I think the Great Repeal Act will do that.
The stuff which is unrelated to trade or to movement will be relatively easy to safeguard, so long as the government stands by what it has said – David Davis has said “I am not using this to undermine the existing rules and rights.” So if he keeps that promise, it would be the easiest thing.
The bigger problem is those rights that depend on the rest of Europe – the right to a safe product that has been made elsewhere in the EU, or the right to send it back because it is no good – we cannot put it into our law. It will depend on our future relationship with the EU. That is the same for lots of things, for example with pensioners. We cannot make these laws ourselves. They will depend on the EU.
Professor Simon Green from Aston University said there is some kind of a “blissful ignorance” in Britain regarding the fact that there are very diverging interests among the EU countries ahead of negotiations with the UK. Do you believe this is the case?
Absolutely. The British people see it as a big “whole”, a big bloc that speaks with one voice. Even with my colleagues who are politically involved, when I start speaking to them about elections in other countries, lots of people do not understand that. They understand our politics, but they forget that other people are elected as well. I do think there is a great ignorance.
The other ignorance is about the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR – Council of Europe). Within Britain, most people completely muddle the two courts. So, the Court in Strasbourg (ECHR) on human rights and the ECJ are seen as one. An ECHR ruling from a couple of years ago said that we should give voting rights to our prisoners. It was a dreadful thing for the future of the British view of Europe. It had nothing to do with the EU, but there is no way we can get that across to our population. They see you (Europe) as having told us how to behave on a very domestic issue. So it had a very bad effect no matter how much we said it came from a different organisation.
What is the process in Britain going to look like now? There is the Supreme Court ruling due on how the Article 50 should be triggered. Do you have an idea how that will play out?
The legislation will happen fairly soon, probably by the end of January. Then the discussion will be about a framework document that goes with it, because under Article 50 you should have a framework for the negotiations. What we have been saying to the government is this: never mind the details, we want to know what your objectives are, what are you trying to get out of this. I therefore think the discussion in parliament will be about whether those objectives are the ones we find acceptable. If it is all about trade and nothing about rights we would find that difficult. I think that discussion will take about a month within parliament and it will be a difficult time. There are still a lot of people heart-broken over this. They do not want to trigger Article 50, so it will be a difficult political management job to try to concentrate on the fact that we are leaving. Now it is important to look at what the objectives are and what we want to end up with.
We hear a lot that “Brexit means Brexit”. But there are people who say it is misplaced to talk about “leaving the EU” because you actually can’t do it, but we should rather talk about a process of “recalibration of relations” or a redefinition of your participation in European integration. Do you believe that at the end of the day it will not really be an exit but a different kind of connection?
That would be wonderful. But I do think our electorate has voted for exit. It is also hidden in the word Brexit, the ‘exit’ is so much in our vocabulary. I think the politicians get the bigger picture. I certainly think that there will have to be something done in two years so people feel we are no longer members. Psychologically, we will need to do that. Hopefully we can negotiate something that puts us into a close relationship.
What do you think about some statements made in Europe, also by Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico who said that “Brexit must hurt” so that it dissuades other countries from embarking on the same path?
I think that was a bit silly. I come from a trade union background and one of the things we have been taught is that the only way I am going to get a deal I want is if you feel at the end that you have walked away with something. Therefore I have got to be able to give you something that makes you feel you could get your chin up. All trade unions have to understand that the employer must not look stupid at the end. When we talk to the Japanese or Chinese, they understand this perfectly. The idea is “do not rub their nose into dirt” as we say. We should try and make the EU feel that it is stronger when we are gone, but the EU should try and make sure that we feel confident and we are still able to continue talking.
I am sure that over the next few months they will not talk about paying, because that fuels British antagonism. “If they are so upset we are leaving, then it is clearly right we are leaving, because we were paying too much.” This does not help the negotiations.
One of the most sensitive issues in the negotiations is, of course, the future restrictions on free movement of people. I know you cannot really predict it but what would be your ideal scenario?
I think it is more about staying. I frankly think that everyone who is in the UK and is working will stay. I know the government has not yet committed to allowing current residents to stay, but I feel sure they will. We will have to define what we mean by “people already here” and whether it is two days or 20 years. But that is relatively easy to do and I am fairly sure that other countries will feel the same way.
The issue going forward is about who is going to come in the future. I think we need your bright engineers and other qualified people. But of course we need a whole lot of non-skilled people as well, for our agriculture, hospitality sector and our social care. We have a lot of old people and we are not so good with families looking after them. Some suggest we should have sector by sector basis. For example, we need a hundred thousand people for the social sector. But it would be driven by conditions we require, by what we want for our economy, and unfortunately not just for people who would like to come and work in the UK. That is what needs to be discussed.
Regarding Scotland, you said that Nicola Sturgeon has put herself in an impossible situation. Could you elaborate on that?
She is asking for the impossible. She is saying she wants full access to the single market. If she does not get it, she will have another referendum. But she is not going to get it. So in the end she is playing an irresponsible game, asking the impossible to get the excuse to have another referendum. Actually at the moment, she would not win another referendum. The idea that Scots, who are quite canny people, will say: “We are not members of the EU anymore and we do even want to stay in the 60 million-strong market of England and Wales”, well, I do not think she will win another referendum.
She has elections in May, so it is partly about her playing the re-election game. But she clearly knows she cannot get what she is demanding. So she could end up in a difficult position.
What is the situation in the Labour party post-Brexit?
It is a tricky one. Since the early 1980s, the Labour Party has been very in favour of EU membership. It has a strong position among the European socialists where we play a very full role. It was quite difficult to discover that, outside the big cities, many of the places where we have labour MPs voted to leave. It was quite a surprise for many people. They say: oh, they had lots of EU’s money. Surely they should have stayed in. But the problem is not about getting the European money to this or that project, but that it did not change much in those communities. The Labour Party finds itself with lots of MPs in areas which voted for Brexit. We have got to bring the party together and find a new approach to the negotiations that includes those counties that voted leave. Some of the representatives of the Labour Party say, “we have to understand those who vote for Remain”. True, but we also have to understand those who voted the other way round – to deal with the problem of people who felt life outside the EU would be better.
For you personally, is it easy to empathise with and understand those who voted to leave?
It is easier for me because I am Welsh. I have spent time there and I have seen how those communities have not changed in the way that London has. There is no entrepreneurial spirit of the type that would keep young people there. It does not feel the buzz, so I can understand them much more.