Monthly Archives: February 2018


The arguments made during the first referendum in 1975 on Do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?” were, as I remember, largely economic, tied in with a vision of where the UK’s future place in the world ought to be.

Would it do better linked to the old Empire, most of which was now becoming independent, or as part of an expanding Common Market, free of internal tariff barriers, in non-communist western Europe?

It’s true there was some discussion about sovereignty. Formidable speakers like Enoch Powell and Tony Benn abhorred any tampering with the sovereignty of the Westminster parliament, as had Hugh Gaitskell before him, but such constitutional questions seemed to many people rather academic. It is therefore interesting to turn to the recent second referendum and there to the factors found to have influenced people’s votes (see the data provided by the Rowntree Foundation and Lord Ashcroft’s polls in the weblinks below).

Here the issue of sovereignty was cited as the main reason for opposition to the EU by those who voted leave, and economic prospects as third in importance. However the second most significant reason cited in the 2016 referendum on Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” was a new one: the better control of immigration.

Admittedly in 1975 immigration in general was a controversial issue – the “rivers of blood” speech by Enoch Powell 1968 had stirred passions – but the immigrants objected to then were not from Europe; furthermore, the free movement of persons in the EU, and the entry to the UK of a large number of them, particularly from Eastern Europe, had yet to come.

Between 1975 and 2006 the powers of European institutions expanded. After all, for markets to operate smoothly and effectively rules need to be applied by governmental bodies capable of enforcing them. For there to be a level playing field it was understandable that there should be freedom of movement of goods and services, with common standards, for example of weights, measures and hygiene.

Furthermore the players in the market – business people, workers and investors – from all countries needed to have the same opportunities everywhere. Hence the four freedoms of the single market (of goods, services, people and capital), mentioned in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, were set up in stages by the treaties of Maastricht 1993, Amsterdam 1999 and Lisbon 2009.

The European institutions responsible for regulations included the Commission (EU secretariat), the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, and the directives so produced have become part of the law of the UK. Alleged infringements of the rules are brought to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg whose judgements are mandatory on any member.

(As an aside, it’s important to distinguish between the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights based in Strasbourg. The latter is the court of the Council of Europe – founded in 1949 and consisting of 47 member states of which the EU 28 states are only a part – and concerned with the upholding of Human Rights, in particular the Convention on Human Rights. The Court’s decisions are not mandatory though have considerable authority; for example, when it decided that the UK was wrong in not giving prisoners the vote, the UK government refused an immediate change but has since come to a compromise.)

The UK now is in the formal process of leaving the EU. It began in May 2015 when the UK parliament voted by 544 to 53 to hold a referendum; this was held in 2016 with the question: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” Though the margin of victory in the referendum was slight – 52 to 48% to the nearest point – the overwhelming majority in the parliamentary vote to hold the referendum and the long campaign leading up to it gave added weight to the final referendum vote and has made many MPs feel under an obligation to support a Brexit deal even if it is not what they personally would have chosen.

In October 2016 Theresa May said she would trigger Article 50 of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty in March 2017; however, Gina Miller’s court case forced May to put the issue through Parliament and, in early 2017, MPs voted to trigger Article 50, with the consequence at 11pm on 29th March 2019 the UK is to be out of the EU.

At the time of writing both sides are proposing that there will be a transition period from March 29th 2019 to the end of December 31st 2020 after which all the changes will apply.

Furthermore, by the end of 2017 substantial progress was made in negotiations about the respective rights of EU and UK citizens, the financial compensation to the EU owed by the UK and the mutual desire not to have border posts between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

But what has still to be decided is the nature of the future relationship between the two bodies. The deadline for doing so and agreeing the transition has been set by David Davis and Michel Barnier as Oct 2018.

One option is for the UK to remain part of the Single Market. This would preserve London as a global financial centre but would entail accepting the four freedoms and the jurisdiction of the European Court.

Another is to retain membership of the Customs Union alone. That would mean no tariff barriers and so no need for border posts, for example in Ireland, but UK would not be allowed to make trade deals with other countries outside the EU.

The two remaining possibilities already on the table are,

 first, for the UK not to leave at all,

or, second, to come out with no deal and move to the World Trade Organisation rules which would mean being subject to all the EU tariffs and doing any deals on an ad hoc basis.

What the UK government seems to be hoping for is a “bespoke” customs deal that does not prevent the UK making other trade agreements; this might mean avoiding border posts in Ireland by registering goods on which tariffs are due at the point of dispatch or by treating local trade around the border as so small that it can be disregarded.

Not unnaturally the EU is wary of this; what can start as a little local trade can expand vastly if smugglers get it.

How things will turn out eventually it is hard to be sure. The negotiators need our support – not least to conduct the negotiations in the right spirit. When passions run high it is very easy to demonise opponents.

What concerns me is that the UK should not lose some of the good things the EU has brought us, for example about the environment, conditions at work, and action against tax injustice.

One of the consequences of Brexit would be that vast quantities of EU directives would have to be brought over into UK law and adapted to fit our own institutions.

The (Great Repeal Bill) was read the first time in the House of Commons on 13 July 2017, and completed its passage through the Commons on 17 January 2018, by passing the Third Reading by 324 votes to 295. It has completed First and Second Readings in the House of Lords, and Committee Stage is scheduled to begin on 21 February 2018.

The necessary action, in a short space of time so that there is not a legal vacuum, is likely to give considerable power to government over against parliament, possibly in ways that cannot be afterwards reversed.

Even more concerning is the division the debate seems to have brought out within our own society. According to the studies of both the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and of Lord Ashcroft, the groups in general voting remain were those under 40, better educated, with good jobs, in London, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The leavers were generally poorer, unemployed or in less lucrative employment, and in areas not so much of high immigration but of a rapid increase in immigration over the last few years.

Maybe the divisions were already there but it has taken the referendum question to bring them out. The challenge now is to use the negotiations and the eventual decision and implementation as a means of fostering social and environmental justice for all, including migrants and refugees.

Though difficult, it is a moral and religious imperative.


John Nightingale, 11th February 2018