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Monday, February 06, 2017

The Observer backs the Lib Dem view on Brexit referendum

Yesterday's Observer sets out in some detail why Parliament and the British people need to scrutinise in some detail how the Government is handling Brexit:

Parliament has been given a vote on article 50 not as a result of pressure it applied itself, but because Gina Miller took the government to court. Mrs May shamefully resisted all the way up to the supreme court.

The bill to trigger article 50 continues in that vein. While it might satisfy the courts, it is fundamentally undemocratic. There are no measures to give parliament a meaningful chance to scrutinise the terms of Britain’s EU exit. The white paper says only that parliament will get to vote on the final deal agreed with the EU.

Too little, too late. After a lengthy process that includes approval by the European council, approval by at least 20 countries that make up 65% of the EU’s population, and ratification by the European parliament, it will essentially be a choice between any deal Mrs May has struck and crashing out of the EU after two years on World Trade Organisation terms, risking economic carnage. In other words, no real choice at all.

The terms of our European Union exit are no less critical than the principled decision itself on whether to leave the EU. Yet the government is, in effect, eroding any means by which parliament could scrutinise them. It is nothing short of outrageous. As the bill enters its Commons committee stage, the next few days will prove a critical test of the extent to which parliament is willing to assert itself.

It is all the more important given that there is much to be concerned about in a thin white paper that sheds little extra light beyond the prime minister’s speech two weeks ago. Her faith that we will be able to secure single market-style access for cherry-picked sectors, while ditching freedom of movement and renouncing dispute resolution by the European court of justice, is completely misplaced.

Her belief that we will be able to negotiate a full deal within two years of triggering article 50 appears deluded, given that free-trade agreements typically take far longer to negotiate and ratify, even when they do not include the fiendishly complicated negotiations around services that she wants included in any final deal. There is an alarming lack of detail about implications for the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

Crucially, they argue that Parliamentary scrutiny must be meaningful and that there must be an opportunity to reject any agreement before it goes to the European council for approval, so as to give the government a mandate to seek further time for negotiation, should it reject it:

Any MP planning to vote against the amendments to the bill that seek to ensure this – whether or not they supported Brexit – should reflect long and hard on precisely what they think parliament is for, if not to scrutinise the government on this most momentous of decisions. Second, the British people must have the opportunity to accept or reject the deal negotiated by the government. The referendum result provided a democratic mandate for Britain to leave the EU; it did not give permission to the prime minister to negotiate any deal she sees fit.

That is very much the Liberal Democrats position. It is the sensible way forward from where we are now.
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