No one really knows what the EU or the UK will look like in two years. We must be able to make a judgment then
Tonight I am going to a rally to hear someone speak who could change the future of Europe — and the course of Brexit too. The rally of up to 2,000 people will take place in Westminster Central Hall, a stone’s throw from the House of Lords, where peers are debating the Bill that will give Theresa May the authority to start the Brexit negotiations.
Instead of the (unelected) PM glowering at the (unelected) Lordships from her perch on the steps of the throne in the Lords chamber, as she did yesterday, Mrs May would be better advised to join the rally tonight. Because the speaker, Emmanuel Macron, may well become the next President of France — and may hold her fate in his hands too.
His rapid political ascent has been astonishing. He’s never been elected to anything before. He didn't even belong to a political party. Yet he is treated with near reverence by his followers. Thousands flock to his rallies across France. His voice rasps with fury as he rails at the status quo, condemning the clapped-out politics of the French establishment. He promises to reform the sclerotic French economy from top to toe.
Yet — here’s the catch that sets him apart from all the other anti-establishment rabble-rousers across Europe — he is a passionate advocate of a reformed European Union too. Just when the Farage-Gove-Trump narrative that Brexit will lead to the unravelling of the EU was starting to take root, along comes someone who threatens to thwart their prejudices. Macron is everything Farage-Gove-Trump hate: he believes in the EU, embraces openness and abhors protectionism — yet he is all that they fear too, because he can draw crowds as well as they can.
According to the received wisdom of the Brexit press, nativist populists are on the march everywhere across the democratic world, sweeping all before them. Liberal internationalists are on the retreat, weakened by their own elitism and complacency. Long live the nation! Long live the people! Boo-hiss to the EU! Down with international bureaucrats! According to this view, the world is irreversibly turning away from openness, multiculturalism and supranational institutions towards strong- man politics, great power machismo and the reassertion of local identity.
Macron turns all this on its head: he’s anti-establishment but a convinced internationalist too. Crucially, he understands that if the EU is to withstand the pressures from Putin, Trump, Brexit and internal public discontent it must reform itself fast. Last month, in an important speech at the Humboldt University in Berlin, he declared that the euro “cannot last without major reforms”. If he is elected as French president, he will throw the gauntlet down to Germany: strengthen the eurozone or face the consequences of economic disarray. So he’s pro-European but pro-reform too.
And he’s not alone. Across Europe, outbursts of liberal protest are emerging in different countries: last weekend, 160,000 demonstrators protested in favour of taking in more refugees in Barcelona; a couple of weeks earlier, almost half a million Romanians protested in favour of political reform and against corruption; in December, thousands of Poles chanted “liberty, equality, democracy” in protests against their authoritarian, Right-wing government; and a month earlier, plucky protesters even marched in favour of closer ties with the EU in the tiny country of Moldova.
None of these protests, on its own, changes the political weather of our continent. But they show that the traffic isn’t all one-way, the populists are not winning outright. Geert Wilders, the Islamophobic Dutch politician with an unnervingly similar hairstyle to Trump, is losing ground as the general election in the Netherlands approaches. In Germany, the next Chancellor will either be Angela Merkel or Martin Schulz — both committed pro-Europeans.
So no one really knows what the EU will look like by the time Mrs May’s two-year Article 50 deadline is due. The assumption that the eurozone will collapse, or the EU will disintegrate, is the stuff of fantasy among Brexiteers, rather than reality. For a lot of last year, growth rates in the eurozone were actually higher than in the UK. And what if the UK economy splutters badly in the next 24 months as the turbulence of Brexit hits, and higher supermarket prices inflict an unwelcome Brexit squeeze on household budgets? In those circumstances, are voters going to thank MrsMay if she comes back with a bad deal or no deal at all?
Voters in Middle England will start to harbour serious doubts if they see the Government tie itself up in knots over Brexit while their local schools, social care centres and NHS hospitals gasp for desperately needed resources. Tony Blair was right when he declared last week that “this Government has bandwidth for only one thing: Brexit”. Yet the British people will expect a whole lot more from Mrs May and her ministers over the next few years.
Which brings us back to the Lords. Eccentric though it is, our unelected chamber is a kind of constitutional watchdog in Westminster, empowered to get the Government and MPs to think again when peers feel that basic constitutional checks and balances are being ignored. The Lords have every right to insist that a meaningful vote is guaranteed in Parliament when the two-year Article 50 period expires. No one has any idea what kind of Brexit deal will emerge, what the state of public opinion will be, what the rest of the EU will be up to, and how the UK economy will be faring. Why should Mrs May have the sole, almost regal, prerogative to decide what is right for the country then?
In fact, peers should go even further: when, and if, a deal finally emerges, someone needs to approve it. Should that be the PM? Or politicians in Westminster? Or the people? Now there’s a novel idea — unelected Lords giving the people their rightful say about their own future. Who could object to that?