Can the EU protect our fundamental rights?

This is a translation of an article I wrote for the Catalan newspaper VilaWeb entitled “La UE pot protegir els nostres drets fonamentals?“. VilaWeb publishes some of their own articles in English here.

Two and a half years ago, we Britons voted in the Brexit referendum.

As a democrat, I had always wanted to have the opportunity to vote, the opportunity to decide on our relationship with the European Union. But when this opportunity arrived, I did not know how to vote.

The European Union represents a great co-operation between countries, an economic power in which 28 nations can fight together for their interests, their economies, etc. For its citizens, the possibility of travelling and working in any European country is a right which makes the world – or, at least, the countries of this union – a little smaller and more open. Despite the mottoes of the far-right, were are all one race and we should be brothers and friends. We should live and work together.

At heart, I am a democrat. I believe in the sovereignty of national and regional parliaments. I believe, above all, in democracy. If the European Union wants to represent Europeans, before anything else it has to defend democracy and human rights. It has to defend these parliaments and rights with all of the strength which the member states give it. But it does not.

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Parliamentary democracy reigns supreme

For many news outlets, the headline news was that Theresa May had lost her first Commons vote as Prime Minister.

Just 12 of her MPs was all it took to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, such are the perils of running a government without a parliamentary majority.

But for me, today was not so much about a weak prime minister losing a crucial vote, but instead about the very essence of parliamentary democracy.

Almost uniquely amongst Leave voters, it seems, I am delighted that Dominic Grieve’s amendment was passed.

After all, I voted for a departure, not a destination. I voted to leave the EU, not on any future relationship we may have with them after 29 March, 2019.

The EU has become so bloated it affects so many areas of our life that the idea we can simply walk away, or grudgingly accept a bad deal, is madness.

I don’t want that deal to be decided upon by a handful of ministers and civil servants alone.

Our parliamentary democracy means we elect members of parliament to speak and vote for us on important issues. Very few issues will be as important over the coming years as the withdrawal agreement.

Our MPs, our democratically elected representatives, must have the opportunity to scrutinise and debate any deal with Brussels before it is finalised. And if it is a bad deal, they must have the power to veto it.

After all, that’s what parliamentary democracy is all about.

And, while I would prefer to be able to have a direct say on the deal in a referendum, tonight we saw MPs guaranteeing the next best thing. 

Parliament has taken back control. Isn’t that what we voted Leave for on 23 June?

If Theresa May’s Brexit were on the ballot paper, I’d have voted Remain

When I left the Conservative Party four years ago and joined UKIP, I always envisaged returning to being a Tory voter (if not a member) after the EU referendum had been delivered – which, let’s face it, is the main reason why people voted for UKIP and why that Party is now on a slippery slope to oblivion.

EU Referendum duly delivered, I left UKIP and began to keep an eye on the direction of Theresa May’s new government to see whether the damage done by David Cameron to the Conservative Party I had joined would be undone. Despite some promising words at the start of her reign, unelected Queen May is now bent on pursuing Brexit at any cost in the hopes of reuniting her party and proving that, whilst a remainer, she is committed to delivering the will of the people – while the wedge between leave and remain voters is gradually creating a deeper divide across the country.

What irks me, irritates me, angers me even, more than anything else this government without a mandate is doing, is the continued insistence on playing political poker with people’s lives. On 23 June 2016, the British people voted for a departure from the EU – but not a destination. The choice voters made was to leave the EU, narrowly outnumbering those who wanted to remain in the EU, but they were not consulted on what that would actually look like. In a referendum campaign filled with so many contradictions and plagued by misdirection, it was impossible to know, from the perspective of either side, what Brexit would look like.

Like 17 million other Brits, I voted Leave on 23 June 2016. Like many (though, admittedly, not all) I did not vote against immigration, as the Britain I want to live in is an open Britain. Like many (though, admittedly, not all) I did not vote against non-Brits, as the Britain I want to live in is a tolerant Britain. Like many (though, admittedly, not all) I did not vote to stick two fingers up to the establishment, as the Britain I want to live in is a united Britain, not one in which an “us v them” mentality defines discourse.

I voted to leave the EU because I have spent the majority of my life campaigning against an organisation which seems bent on subverting nation state democracy in the pursuit of a federal European superstate; an organisation which has almost single-handedly crippled several Mediterranean economies through a failed pan-European currency; and an organisation which seeks to apply a single standard upon a continent of half a billion people of vastly different histories and cultures. I voted to leave the EU because of a lifelong ideological opposition to the EU and, like 17 million other Brits, I voted to leave without knowing what leaving looked like. It was, I admit, a risk, but one I eventually took after much agonising consideration – and, eight months on, here’s the new headline:

If I had known on 23 June that voting “Leave” would result in Theresa May’s vision of Brexit, then, despite my deep and long-held opposition to the EU, I would have voted “Remain”!

Does that mean that I regret voting to leave? No. Categorically not. What I regret is that the terms of our departure are being decided upon by a government with no electoral mandate beyond leaving the EU. And what I regret, perhaps more than anything, is that this unelected government is now playing games with 3 million people’s lives. And yes, that includes the woman who will later this year (on 8 July, in fact) become my wife.

It has often been said that the UK leaving the EU is like a long and unhappy marriage finally coming to a divorce. However, before the divorce can be finalised, the two parties need to decide what their lives will look like after the legal separation – and that involves negotiation and compromise. What angers me is the way the government is so casually placing so much stress and uncertainty on 3 million people who not only did not vote for this government, but also did not get a voted on whether their country of residence would be leaving the EU at all.

The government’s approach to EU citizens living in the UK is not dissimilar to that of a bitter parent arguing over custody of the children, particularly in the context of extracting as much “compromise” from the other party as possible. It makes for a compelling emotional argument but, ultimately, the children become mere pawns in their parents’ violent game of chess while their best interests are continually ignored by the warring parties. In their “love” for their children, those parties end up doing more damage in the long-term.

This government is effectively saying to EU citizens “we care about you so much, but actually not enough to guarantee your right to remain living here”.

As for my family, the situation is complicated enough without Queen May tearing it down the middle before it’s even begun. My bride-to-be is unable to move to the UK until we get married (for reasons I will not go into here) and, like the open-minded optimist I am, I assumed that, as the UK must continue to respect its treaty obligations for free movement of people until the date we actually leave the EU, the government would not be so cold-hearted as to remove the right to live here of anyone who had made the UK their home before that date. Silly me! It seems the government is more concerned with the Faragist scare-tactic that half of eastern Europe will move here in the next two years than with taking a pragmatic (dare I say, human) approach to the workers this country needs to survive.

Now, I don’t blame Queen May for my family situation but I will squarely and firmly blame her if my wife and I are ever forced to live in separate countries because of her own heartless immigration policy. And if that situation ever occurs then I swear, as long as there is blood pumping through my body, that I will never vote Conservative again. Ever! And, yes, you can quote me on that.

In the meantime, Queen May needs to stop playing politics with people’s lives and provide some certainty to the 3 million people currently worrying whether they will still have a home in two years’ time. As Sarah Ludford, the Lords Shadow Minister for Exiting the European Union, said:

EU citizens need to be given clarity on where they stand … It would be shameful if the Government were to leave them in limbo, lining them up as bargaining chips in the forthcoming negotiations.

Until then, I cannot help but wonder whether my decision to vote Leave was perhaps the worst decision I will ever make in my life…