Adam Payne/Business Insider
LONDON — The government must show more good will towards the European Union if Britain is to get an acceptable Brexit deal, the chair of the parliamentary Brexit committee has said.
Labour MP Hilary Benn told Business Insider on Monday that last year’s Conservative Party conference was a “disaster” for the UK’s chances of a good deal because it damaged the country’s reputation among its European counterparts.
The MP for Leeds Central was speaking at an Institute for Government event titled “Scrutinising Brexit” in central London. As Brexit committee chair, it is Benn’s job to make sure the committee holds Theresa May’s handling of Britain’s exit from the EU to account.
At one point in the event, Benn said it was important for Britain and the 28-nation bloc to have positive mutual ties prior to talks officially beginning after Article 50 has been triggered at the end of March. When Business Insider asked Benn whether the government has shown enough good will towards the EU, he said:
“Well, it’s been a bit of a mixed picture.
“When I reflect back to a certain week in Birmingham in the Autumn where people of a particular party gathered and gave speeches, I thought it was a disastrous week for Britain and its reputation in the world. Absolutely disastrous.
“To produce headlines that say ‘crackdown on foreign students’… When I last checked, there was no problem that we needed to crack down upon. It’s ridiculous to have students in the net migration target. Absolutely absurd. Saying doctors who have brought their skills here from abroad can stay in the interim period while we will train our own doctors is great but we still need to rely on people bringing their expertise from all over the world for crying out loud.
“It sends a message that we are closing in on ourselves as a nation and that’s not who we are. It’s not what Britain is. We thrive, prosper, and succeed in the future by being a welcoming nation. I think that’s really important.”
He added: “I think a second difficulty is that there’s been a little bit too much ‘we’re gonna get the following’ when the 27 member states are sitting there thinking ‘hmm we’ll we’ll see about that’. I think the tone has changed a little bit more recently but it needs to change because what we get will be based upon what the other 27 member states are prepared to agree. We’ve got to approach these negotiations in the right spirit and in the right atmosphere.”
The former shadow foreign secretary was asked a series of questions relating to Britain’s imminent divorce from the 28-nation bloc. He stressed the importance of a transitional arrangement to provide stability between the moment Britain leaves and when a new UK-EU free trade deal comes into effect, describing it as “common sense.”
“The word transitional arrangement has become toxic with some Leavers, as if it’s some plot to keep Britain in the EU. I don’t care what you call it — it’s common sense. If you are going to move from one set of rules and regulations to another you need a process to ease the transition,” Benn said.
“I think it’s an extraordinarily optimistic view to take that both the divorce and the future arrangement can be sorted out [in two years]… 18 months will pass like that. It’s no time at all.”
On the idea that May will be able to strike a deal with the US that will fill the void left by Britain’s membership of the European single market, the Labour MP said:
“Trump is a protectionist President. People are talking about a free trade deal. What will the US want to buy from us that it doesn’t buy from us and what will it want in return? The idea that a free-trade deal with the US or any other state will ride to the rescue like the cavalry doesn’t do justice to the position that we are in.”
A huge majority of MPs voted to pass the first stage of the government’s Brexit bill last week.
This week Parliament will debate a number of amendments that have been tabled by Labour and other parties in the House. A number of the proposed amendments call on Parliament to be given a “meaningful” vote on the deal May negotiates with the EU that would grant MPs the power to block the prime minister from going back to Brussels and signing the deal if Parliament is dissatisfied with the terms. Benn reiterated this demand. He said:
“Parliament intends to be a participant, not a bystander,” he said. “The idea that party will just sit back and let the government get on with it is not a runner. Leave campaigners said part of the reason to leave the EU was to restore parliamentary sovereignty. You can’t then argue Parliament will not have a final say on what happens.”
Here’s Benn, chair of the Brexit committee pic.twitter.com/kjYDdqLs6y
— Adam Payne (@adampayne26) February 6, 2017
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