Earlier this month, I interviewed the new Leader of Labour in the European Parliament, Richard Corbett. Richard has been an MEP since 1996, and led initial concerns about UKIP in 2004. We sat down in his Leeds office to discuss the left, the UK and the EU.
I asked Richard how he felt the EU negotiations would go, it’s fair to say he was far from bullish. “The worst consequences are if we leave without a deal, because then you have legal limbo, leaving all types of things from airline landing rights to the rights of British citizens living in other EU countries, to all kinds of trade agreements, not just with the EU but with third countries that we've negotiated via the EU - they'll all be in limbo. And on trade, we'll have to revert to WTO rules, with immediate tariffs on vital products. That would be the worst case scenario. And given the inability of the government to move forward to a deal at the moment there is a real risk of that happening.”
And the best case scenario? “Britain faces a painful choice on the big issues...are we leaving not just the EU but also the Single Market and the Customs Union? which would have a huge negative effect on us economically, or are we staying in the Single Market and the Customs Union? where you'll actually have to follow the common rules for the single market for instance, you won't have a say on them any longer if you're not a member state, so you become a rule taker not a rule maker. Neither kind of Brexit is kind of very good for Britain, but you have to choose one or the other if you go ahead with Brexit. The only way to avoid that choice is to avoid Brexit itself.”
It’s unsurprising Corbett is so stoic in his support for the EU. Whilst important figures around Brexit such as International Trade Secretary Liam Fox signed Early Day Motions against the Maastricht Treaty, Richard Corbett was helping write it.
Corbett is very much the EU insider - he’s worked for President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy, helped the ‘Yes’ campaign on Ireland’s referendum on the Lisbon treaty, and led the youth wing of the Union of European Federalists during his time outside of the European Parliament’s chamber.
Whilst this meant his knowledge of the EU is unrivalled (I left from our interview with two of his books on the growth of the EU), and his position as an expert on matters regarding the EU solidified (ex BBC Europe Editor Mark Mardell said Corbett was “one of the few people who understand how the European Parliament actually works and explained it well”), Corbett occasionally strayed into showing disregard towards mood in Westminster, and in Britain in general.
Asked if he thought Labour would vote for a bad deal, Corbett said: “I don't know. Labour's laid down already some red lines, saying that 'if we're going ahead with Brexit, we must at least keep the advantages of the single market and the customs union and we must have a long transition, we don't want a hard border with Northern Ireland' and so on and so forth. If a deal comes back that doesn't meet those conditions, then logically labour should vote against that deal.” He continued to methodically lay out what he thought would happen, “It can mean one of two things; it can mean going away and negotiating further, get some change and getting a better deal, which might be difficult if there's not much time left, and it needs unanimity to get an extension of the negotiations, but it could also mean we need to reconsider Brexit itself!”.
Depending how you view Britain’s decision to leave the EU, Corbett’s disinterest in the ever evolving sacred cows of SW1 could be either a blessing or a curse. Mood in Westminster seems almost consigned to a chaotic Brexit, with only 53 Labour MPs voting against third reading of the Brexit bill, despite over 200 backing remain before the referendum. Groupthink regarding the inevitability of Brexit peaked when Corbett and his fellow MEPs were the centre of a piece by Guido Fawkes, who accused them of “[voting] against Britain’s interests’.
Corbett broke from his rather calm explanation of the issues faced in negotiations, appearing irked as he discussed the story “[It was] totally unwarranted,” he quickly altered the subject. “There was the amusing aspect the David Davis apparently wrote to Jeremy Corbyn asking for the whip to be removed from the Labour MEPs, well it would've been the first time in history that MEPs see the whip removed from them for following the whip!”
It’s undoubtable that Corbett is one of the most intelligent politicians at Labour’s disposal at the European level, and someone whose knowledge will surely be invaluable during the crunch time of negotiations, and the potential fallout from the talks.