As the clock counts down towards Brexit, British Members of the European Parliament find themselves sailing into unknown waters. Some, like Nigel Farage, cannot wait to wave farewell to Brussels. Others find the unfolding Brexit shipwreck a gut-wrenching experience. And none more so than Richard Corbett, who in October took over as leader of the Labour group – the EPLP – in the EU’s sole directly elected assembly.
Leadership under these circumstances could be seen as a poisoned chalice. But Corbett is not a man to give up easily, having devoted most of his life to European unity. Educated as a teenager in Geneva, where his father worked for the World Health Organisation, he joined the European Movement at Oxford. He was an MEP from 1996 to 2009, when he lost his seat, became adviser to European Council President Herman van Rompuy before being re-elected in 2014, and is recognised as a leading expert on EU constitutional matters.
He laughs grimly when asked about the state of morale in the Labour group. “It’s a difficult time obviously, it’s not what I would have wanted,” he admits, “but in the one and a half years ahead, whatever the outcome, there’s a lot going on and we can play an important role. The 20 Labour MEPs have a lot of expertise and knowledge in different fields and networks of contacts. That can be an asset to the Labour party back home.”
After the initial shock of the Brexit vote, the reaction from some other MEPs was ‘so why are you still hanging around?’ he admits. “But that quickly mellowed, and any hostility was directed more towards UKIP and Conservatives who campaigned to leave. At present we are still fully fledged MEPs and many of the short-term, and indeed long-term measures being proposed are still likely to affect Britons, so we are still part of the decision-making process. There’s a recognition that most of us are still constructively here – not to represent the views of the British government, especially when the government’s line is so chaotic, divided and sometimes obstructionist. We represent our constituents, who are not all British. In my Yorkshire and the Humber constituency we have Irish, Poles, French …”
As leader of the EPLP, Corbett is a member of Labour’s NEC and attends the shadow cabinet. He admits guiltily that he would rather see no Brexit at all – at odds with official Labour Party policy. Labour was “a bit perplexed” about how to respond to the referendum result, he believes. “We campaigned to remain, but we lost. Now the Labour Party is facing an evolving situation. There is an argument that we have got to respect the outcome of a democratic referendum, but others are saying: do we? When we lose a general election, we don’t do everything the Tories want.
“This was a narrow result based on a pack of lies, so it was understandable there were different views in the aftermath. But as time moves on it’s less about how we should have responded and increasingly about what we do about the impending, catastrophic, chaotic, costly, Conservative Brexit.” Corbett smiles as he repeats his pleasingly alliterative analysis. “Everybody is united around the fact that where the Tories are taking us is going to be deeply damaging.”
Corbett is passionate about challenging those lies and exploiting every possible means of communicating with the public. He set up his own smartphone app, Doorstep EU, before the referendum and kept it going, getting the largest number of downloads in the month after the vote. In ‘behind the headlines’ he makes a daily analysis of the reliability of news stories, with links to evidence, and hits are going up every month. He claims to have 30,000 Twitter followers. But communication is always a challenge for MEPs, he admits. “That’s why I try to innovate – I think I was the first British politician to have an app. You can’t rely on the British media. Most of them are actively hostile.” Corbett still tries to get a hearing in mainstream outlets, but bitterly condemns papers like the Mail, the Express, the Sun, the Star, and the Telegraph. “Day after day after day they are pumping out deliberately anti-EU messages. The drip, drip, drip has an effect on public opinion.”
The MEP gets messages from local people in his constituency who voted leave but now have doubts, as well as EU citizens who are especially worried. They are indignant about being used as pawns, he explains. Furthermore, whatever Britain agrees now in terms of rights, what is to stop another British government coming along and changing it, he demands. A future government would also have the right to withdraw worker protection measures – a fact that has caused alarm among trade unions.
He points to opinion polls to show that the public has not rallied behind the referendum result, as might have been expected. “In my view that’s not a surprise, because not all leave voters wanted Brexit at any price,” he explains. “As it becomes clearer that Brexit is going to be a costly process, leave voters are entitled to say: ‘that’s not what we were promised or what I voted for’.
“If Britain goes ahead and leaves the EU it has many choices, but the fundamental one is do we also leave the single market and customs union and compound the economic damage, or do we stay in and follow all the common rules but not have a say on them anymore? It’s a rather unpalatable choice.”
People discover new things every day, he points out. For example, Europe-wide pet passports will no longer be valid after Brexit, and the UK will be outside the system certifying aircraft safety. “Do we set up our own British air safety agency, recruit all the necessary experts at short notice and get recognition from other countries around the world, or do we say to the EU, sorry we’re leaving, but could we please stay in the air safety agency?” The same will apply to some 40 other technical agencies covering vital sectors like medicines and chemicals. “We don’t know what the government’s intending to do, because it’s divided.”
Corbett emphasises that Article 50 is merely a notification of intention to leave, and “intentions can change until the deal is done”. He is convinced that if the UK changed its mind, other Member States would welcome it back. “Whether we have a deal, no deal or no Brexit is up to Britain. If there was a genuine change of heart it would be accepted. And after all, no matter how exasperated Member States are with the British government, it’s a not a good thing for the EU to lose a Member State for the first time in its history. If Britain changed its mind, that would be welcomed.”
He notes some concern, however, that the UK could misuse this provision to withdraw its Article 50 notification and resubmit it at a later date, to start the two-year negotiation clock ticking again. That would not be acceptable.
Corbett believes the neoliberal right of the Conservative Party actively wants a no-deal Brexit so as to create a market free-for-all and escape rules protecting workers, consumers and the environment. “Although no deal would be catastrophic economically, they consider it’s a price worth paying,” he argues. “And we know who would pay that price: not them.”
In his own northern constituency, he points to large manufacturing sectors that would suffer from export barriers. The financial sector in Leeds will be unable to sell services across Europe. Local universities like Leeds, Bradford, York, Sheffield, and Hull have already seen a drop in applications from EU students and will be torn out of European research programmes. Farmers do not know what will replace CAP subsidies and agricultural trade rules. In North Sea fisheries, the fish processing sector voted remain and is “dead worried” because 80% of British fish is exported. Creating an exclusion zone for British boats in UK waters would incur further retaliation against UK exports.
Eighteen months after the referendum, Theresa May is making no headway on negotiating a viable Brexit, argues Corbett. “The only way to avoid these unpalatable choices would be to avoid Brexit itself. If in 2019, the choice is between no deal or no Brexit there will be more and more voices saying no Brexit is better than a bad Brexit.”