Originally published through Liberal Democrat Voice, LDEG Executive Officer Nick Hopkinson explores how and argues that Liberal Democrats should take a stronger view on EU alignment.
Last week I had a chance conversation with a leading national ‘expert’ on Brexit. There was much talk about the state of UK-European Union (EU) relations including the Northern Ireland Protocol. I enjoy discussing wonkery, but in light of public support for Brexit reaching an all time low and increasingly articulated public anger, I raised public opinion. “Forget public opinion” came the answer. I was taken aback.
The remark reinforces suspicions about the conspiracy of public silence amongst political leaders, and seemingly some opinion formers, about Brexit. With the tide of public opinion turning and some journalists still discussing Brexit, politicians are missing a political opportunity if they do not reflect the growing breadth and depth of public anger.
Although politicians have been right to focus on the pandemic and the tragic implications of Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine in recent years, downplaying or staying silent about the European Union (EU) is increasingly misplaced. To advocate closer EU relations is not to refight old Brexit battles, but to address the ever present need to promote our security and prosperity and manage our most important international relationship with our European neighbours.
There is a serious risk that hard Brexit will outlive the current appalling Tory Government. On the basis of current opinion polls, Labour will form the next government. Labour leaders have repeatedly not only ruled out rejoining the EU, but also the Customs Union and Single Market. Labour’s five point plan to make Brexit work is piecemeal. Tory hard Brexit will therefore be replaced by Labour’s little better Brexit.
Politicians can of course argue Brexit/the EU is no longer foremost amongst voters’ concerns. Leaving the EU has indeed declined from being the major concern in September 2019 (with 73%) to fifth (with 17%) in November 2022. While the economy and health have shot up the agenda, there is clear evidence that leaving the EU has adversely impacted both.
If voters can draw a link between the cost of living crisis and Brexit. It isn’t beyond the wit of politicians to draw similar linkages. We should not forget Nigel Farage successfully raised the profile of the perceived lower priority issue of leaving the EU by linking it to the then top priority issue (immigration), especially in the run up to the 2016 referendum.
We know Brexit is not the source of all our national problems. However, political leaders can and should advocate closer relations with the EU as a partial solution, or at least draw linkages between leading voter concerns and Brexit. Advocating closer relations with the EU can help increase inter alia exports, foreign investment and growth, and make it easier to attract more workers such as EU health care professionals.
Recently Chancellor Jeremy Hunt reportedly floated a possible Swiss-style agreement with the EU, and Tobias Ellwood, MP, a former Defence Minister, has even gone so far as to suggest the UK might rejoin the Single Market. If even Conservatives can float closer arrangements with the EU, why are opposition politicians being so timid?
Conservative Hard Brexit and Labour’s little better Brexit provide us with a good political opportunity. We were the first nationwide party to advocate a longer term goal of rejoining the EU at its Autumn 2020 conference, and the first to elaborate a detailed policy paper (144) outlining steps towards closer relations with the EU. Many activists believe we could be more forthright articulating closer relations with the EU. We might attract more media coverage and support if we did so.
Voters and activists are crying out for politicians to articulate credible meaningful solutions to our current crises. Closer relations with the EU can and should be one of them.