If Richard Corbett ever tires of the fight to keep the UK at the heart of Europe, he could do worse than take up a career as a tipster. For, unlike the vast majority of politicians and pundits, the Brexit referendum result didn’t come as a surprise to him. “A month before the referendum, we had a little bet among some Labour MEPs and I was the only one who predicted we’d lose. I said we’d get 49 per cent,” he recalls. “There was an awful lot of complacency. David Cameron himself said to [former president of the European Council] Herman Van Rompuy that it would be ‘60/40 no worries’.”
Interviewing anyone about Brexit for a print magazine right now is a tricky business given the rapid pace of events. I talk to Corbett, the leader of Labour’s MEPs, either side of a tumultuous period punctuated by the million-strong ‘people’s vote’ march, the petition to revoke article 50 which attracted some 6 million signatures and a series of dramatic Commons votes to try to thrash out a way forward.
And while all this was going on, he was overseeing the closure of his office and the departure of staff, a period he describes simply as ‘awful’. It’s not surprising that it is a painful time for Corbett, who has devoted most of his life to the European endeavour. As well as two stints as an MEP, he’s worked as a political advisor in Europe and has been in both capacities deeply involved in some of the most significant European reforms of the past three decades. His contribution when he was an advisor to Van Rompuy in 2012 saw him voted the fourth most influential Briton on Europe – ahead of then prime minister David Cameron and foreign secretary William Hague. But he’s never been a household name, which surely has much to do with the ambivalence in this country towards the EU.
It’s that complicated relationship with Europe which is largely to blame, Corbett underlines, for the mess we now find ourselves in. Even when we had supposedly pro-European governments, he points out, they were half-hearted about the EU. “It is true across Europe to a degree that if something is agreed at European level that governments say: ‘that’s all thanks to us’. If it turns out to be less popular they say: ‘oh that’s all because of Brussels’.”
On top of that, he adds, Britain has a written media that is unique in Europe in its hostility to the EU. “From the Times to the Sun you get – and have done for 20-odd years – a diet of stories designed to make the EU look either silly or sinister,” he says. “Sometimes they’re funny – there’s the one that the European Commission was going to standardise the measurements for the size of condoms across the whole of Europe but the size they proposed was too small to cater for British assets. Everyone had a good laugh but there was no truth in it. In this case, it makes the EU look silly but more often these stories are designed to make the EU look dangerous.”
Since the vote, Corbett has worked hard, both while attending shadow cabinet and beyond, “trying to nudge the party along in the right direction” on Brexit. Labour, he insists, faced an ‘understandable difficulty’ straight after the referendum. “We’d campaigned to remain – but we were faced with a result that was not what we’d campaigned for so what do you do? There was a debate where on the one hand people said we are a democratic party, we respect the will of the people. But others said when we lose a general election we don’t immediately give up on everything we stood for and say whatever the Tories want to do is fine, they’ve got a mandate from the people. We continue to fight, especially as this was a narrow result in an advisory referendum based on a pack of lies with a questionable franchise.”
Whoever was in government would have faced the same unpalatable choice over Brexit – either take a huge economic hit with a hard Brexit or stay inside the single market and customs union but no longer have a say on the rules. “Anyone in government would have faced that choice,” he says. “But when you have a government that’s split down the middle in a civil war and with some of the most incompetent ministers we’ve ever seen, it’s a recipe for disaster.”
Labour, Corbett adds, has – through its six tests on any Brexit deal – finally got to a point where it has been easier to unite around the position of a second referendum. But does he understand those Labour members and supporters who feel frustrated by what they see as timidity in opposing Brexit? Corbett has little time for those who have left the party over Brexit – or ‘vacated the battlefield’ as he puts it. And he demolishes the argument that Labour must respect the result if it is not to be punished at the ballot box. “Even in leave seats a majority of people who identify as Labour voters voted remain,” he says. “Since the referendum that proportion has, according to polling increased. The biggest single group of voters swinging from leave to remain are people who had been Labour leave voters because they now see it as a Tory Brexit.”
“Labour now has far, far more to lose by annoying remainers than it does by annoying leavers.”
The ‘Lexit’ position – that remaining in Europe would hinder much of what Labour would want to do in government – doesn’t stand up, Corbett adds. “It’s the neoliberal right, Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson and Farage and so on, who want to take us out of the European Union because they dislike the fact that the European single market is a market with rules – rules to protect workers, rules to protect consumers, rules to protect the environment. They are significant enough to make the neoliberal right go apoplectic because they want a free for all, Trump-style corporate economy. From a left point of view you are facilitating that agenda if you back Brexit.”
But is Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn himself a Lexiter? Corbett has a careful reply. “I meet him every week and he sticks quite religiously to the party conference resolution and that resolution does envision the possibility of another public vote. There are others around him at various levels in the party who are pushing hard to row back from that,” he says.
In 1975, when he was at university, Corbett co-ordinated the Oxford student ‘yes’ campaign in the referendum that saw Britain join the European Economic Community. Back then, he recalls, Labour suspicion over Europe was perhaps more understandable. “I’ve spent most of my adult life working at the European level trying to improve European structures not without some collective success,” he says. “The European Union now is a very different animal from what it was 30 or 40 years ago. The policies are better, the single market is a market with rules and it is more transparent and more democratic.”
“The European Union has its faults, just like the UK has faults but because the UK has faults I don’t start saying Yorkshire should leave the UK.”
Corbett’s defence of our place in the EU is threefold: idealistic, pragmatic and selfish. “The idealistic [reason] goes back to what it [the European Union] was originally about in the aftermath of the second world war. A continent where every generation from the fall of the Roman Empire to 1945 had gone out to slaughter each other had to find a better way of doing things,” he says. “The pragmatic – whether we like it or not we are a group of neighbouring countries who are highly interdependent, economically, environmentally, in all kinds of ways. The selfish – we are now discovering how vital it is for our economy, our manufacturing, our agriculture, our services. They are all part of an integrated market, with supply chains crossing borders and the number of jobs that depend on that is enormous.”
Corbett believes that opinion across the country has shifted significantly in favour of remain since the referendum – even if it is alarming that leave still registers some 45 per cent backing. But beneath that headline figure, he says, there is much lower support for any of the options that leaving actually entails. “It’s leave voters in particular who are entitled to say this isn’t what I voted for, there’s no resemblance to what was promised. They said it would be easy, when it’s difficult; they said it would save lots of money that would all go to the NHS, when it’s costing us a fortune, and they said there would be no economic difficulties, there patently are. I’d go so far as to say that to deny the right of the public to vote on the actual deal is tantamount to saying to the public you had your say three years ago, now shut up and accept whatever we come up with.”
Some have argued that it will be up to the next generation to sort the UK’s future, possibly by applying to rejoin the EU after a period outside. But, as Corbett points out, that’s not a straightforward option. “You need an accession treaty ratified by every member state so you won’t just face collective demands like ‘you can come back in but you can’t have your rebate any more’ but individual demands. Greece might say give us the Elgin marbles back – fine I would understand that – Spain might have some demands on Gibraltar. It’s a much taller order to rejoin than to stop Brexit.”
Corbett says he has not considered what he will do next if or when the European question is settled. “I’m still fighting Brexit,” he says. And he remains optimistic that the UK can have a future in Europe. With his record as a tipster, don’t rule anything out.