As the end of a momentous year approaches, many of us find ourselves rushing to the finish line feeling sick in our stomachs and anxious about the future. 2016 has been an exceptional roller-coaster of a year which has left us with many complex unanswered questions. The signs are that 2017 may prove to be equally challenging, and we must do our best to prepare for it.
Looking at all the uncertainties we face, and the complex and often Machiavellian maneuvering in our politics, many people in my constituency and elsewhere have asked me “what’s going on!?” So I thought I would put together a brief overview of where we are now, and where we seem to be heading. Democrats, progressives, socialists – we have difficult times ahead, but we must brace ourselves, and get to work, to speak out, and fight for what we believe in. If this is the season of peace and humanitarian goodwill, then we must do what we can to stand up for compassionate human values in these tough times.
The Tory government has recently released yet another meaningless platitude on Brexit that it should be “red, white and blue”. (Presumably this means it could be British, American, French, Dutch, or Slovak?) Last week, the Supreme Court deliberated on the government’s appeal on whether Parliament must vote to trigger article 50 of the European Union treaty. The Court is due to publish its decision in January. After the High Court dismissed the government position on the matter as “divorced from reality”, it is widely expected that the Supreme Court will uphold the decision, and some have speculated that it may introduce even stricter requirements on what Parliament must constitutionally do. As the judges remarked at the end of the proceedings, the case is not about “whether or not” Brexit should happen, but how the result of the referendum could legally be put into practice.
In an attempt to head off MPs derailing her timetable, Theresa May gave in to Labour pressure, and Tory MP rebellion, and has agreed to present Parliament with a Brexit plan, and in return asked Parliament to commit to triggering article 50 by the end of March. Only 89 MPs, 23 of them Labour, voted against the arrangement. Citing a ‘Tory trap’, these Labour MPs raised concerns that the commitment on timing will give the government a carte-blanche to present whatever plan it wants, no matter how vague or odious. Given that the signals seem to suggest we are heading towards a very hard Brexit, I would tend to agree with them.
As a Labour MEP, I will advocate for us to prioritise membership of the European single market as a condition in any future vote, with access to important programmes like Erasmus+, Creative Europe, Horizon 2020, and European cohesion funding, and keeping as many of our EU citizenship rights as we can.
In the meantime, on the other side of the Atlantic, Trump seems to be putting together a team of elitist billionaires and renegade extremists to run the country. His candidate for Secretary of the Treasury is a Goldman Sachs banker who made a fortune after the 2008 crash from foreclosing mortgages on people’s homes and throwing families out onto the streets. His Labour Secretary pick is a billionaire fast-food mogul who made his money exploiting precarious labour, and campaigning against the minimum wage. His pick for Secretary of Defence has committed to keeping Guantanamo Bay open and the incarceration of more people there. His National Security Adviser is a man who said that “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL” (emphasis in the original). His cabinet is set to be the richest in American history, full of elite billionaires. Far from this being a revolution for the “working man”, this seems to be just the top 0.1% cutting out the middle man. These billionaires don’t need to lobby the government, soon they will be the government.
This is significant because the idea that Donald Trump is somehow going to magically give the UK a specialised trade deal simply because he’s been friendly with Nigel Farage is only a pipe-dream. Although none of us have any idea what Trump will actually do as president, it seems like he isn't going to take a sledge-hammer to the ‘Establishment’ or “drain the swamp”, but rather cement the 'swamp' into a form of kleptocratic crony capitalism.
Back in Britain, Brexit bills are piling up. The Office of Budget Responsibility calculated that a soft Brexit will cost the British tax payer about 60 billion pounds, and lead to 122 billion pounds more in government borrowing. European officials have estimated that the UK will need to pay its outstanding debts to the EU when it leaves, which could amount to anywhere between 20 and 52 billion pounds, depending on what kind of deal is negotiated. In the meantime, it has emerged that financial institutions in the City of London are already preparing to move to the Continent, while the Tory government plans to deregulate and slash taxes in a race to the bottom to make us more ‘attractive’ to the banks, also making us more vulnerable to the next banking crisis. A leading Tory Leave MP indicated that stripping away environmental legislation would also be one result of Brexit.
The EU’s chief negotiators on behalf of the Commission and the European Parliament have made it clear that the EU’s core values and freedom of movement are un-negotiable and indivisible. Ministers Boris Johnson and David Davies have in the meantime astounded European diplomats with their arrogant and dismissive attitudes. But we should remember that already our influence is diminished; since the referendum there have been two EU summits with the 27 other countries meeting without the UK.
The European Parliament’s chief negotiator, Guy Verhofstad has proposed offering British citizens an option of maintaining their EU citizenship. This is an intriguing offer, although it remains to be seen whether it is legally workable. Millions of British citizens are still hoping they will not lose their European citizenship, and as a pro-European Labour MEP, I will do what I can to ensure that we do not lose our rights. This is particularly important for young people, for those in the research community and for those working in the creative industries who rely heavily on mobility and freedom of movement for work and leisure.
Perhaps the most worrying effect of the referendum so far is the way that it has revealed an unpleasant innate racism and xenophobia in our society. The Leave campaign's lies about immigrants, amplified by a scurrilous right-wing press, has made foreigners of all kinds feel very unwelcome in the U.K. This goes far beyond the recent rise in Islamophobia and the scapegoating of Romanian and Polish migrant workers. Martin Roth, the German-born highly successful Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, announced in September that the referendum result and the 'war rhetoric' of the Leave campaign had contributed to his decision to resign his post.
Of all of the votes and elections in 2016, the Austrian presidential election re-run provided relief, as the Green-Independent candidate defeated a far-right extremist contender. Austrian colleagues have been the first to say that the battle is far from over, and much work remains to be done. However, what this shows is that when voters mobilise and understand the real risks involved in allowing extremists to claim the empty space, the democratic majority turn out to vote and do defeat the nationalists. We now face a slew of elections in 2017, where that same lesson needs to be applied. We will see the Dutch election in March, the French in May, and the German elections in September. Italy will now probably be heading for elections, as Prime Minister Renzi made the error of connecting the referendum on his proposed constitutional reforms to his own personal fate. All these elections will greatly affect how much leeway European leaders are likely to give the UK during negotiations, which is not likely to be very much.
As we take a rest in between 2016 and 2017, we must recharge our campaigning batteries and be prepared to speak out loud and strong in defence of our values. I know I will be starting 2017 ready for the coming struggles, standing in solidarity with my European colleagues and comrades, speaking up for democracy, human rights, peace and tolerance.
A version of this article has been published in the Word