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A social worker abroad’s take on Brexit

An analysis by Dr Paul Stepney, a UK social worker who currently teaches social work in Finland

Dr Paul Stepney, professor of social work in Finland
Dr Paul Stepney, visiting professor of social work in Finland

Professional Social Work magazine - 5 February 2019

Brexit – the culmination of a misguided project creating division and turmoil, and fanning the flames of resentment

It was presented as a rare moment of triumph for prime minister Theresa May. After heated debate on 29 January the House of Commons passed the Brady amendment calling for a renegotiation of the EU withdrawal agreement.

The next day, it was reported that the prime minister would be flying back to Brussels to reopen negotiations. Nothing unusual there... except that pictures of May leaving Downing Street were accompanied by footage of Lancaster bombers leaving Biggin Hill during World War II heading for the English Channel.

This may have been a simple mix-up by the BBC, but it was a Freudian slip of enormous significance, reminding viewers abroad of Britain's earlier sorties with its European neighbours, embarked upon with Churchillian spirit to protect our borders and national heritage.

By coincidence, the images had remarkable symmetry with many of the underlying arguments used by arch Brexiteers such as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson during the Referendum campaign to explain why Britain should leave the EU.

The footage of May heading for Brussels, and by implication travelling in a Lancaster bomber, was shown on news channels in Finland, Germany, France, and indeed throughout Europe.

Unsurprisingly, many politicians and viewers drew negative and somewhat sinister conclusions. The people of Europe had never quite understood why the UK wished to leave the EU, but now they knew - the veil had been lifted to reveal what Brexit was really all about!

The German commentator Oliver Welke, from the ZDF Heute political satire show said: “Es sieht aus, als ob die Englander immer noch im Krieg sind und zu den Tagen des Imperiums zurückkehren wollen” (it looks like the English are still at war and want to return to the days of empire). To understand how this could have happened we should go back to the Referendum in June 2016.

The Referendum debate

When he was prime minister, David Cameron called the Referendum to settle 'the question of Europe' and unite a bitterly divided Tory party. But his decision to try and renegotiate the UK's relationship with the EU beforehand went down like a lead balloon with other European leaders. After acrimonious negotiations long into the night, a compromise was struck that allowed Mr Cameron to return from Brussels with a deal he could claim protected Britain's interests.

In fact, all he had achieved was little more than an agreement the UK could impose an “emergency brake” on migrant benefits for seven years. This was a move designed to appease Euro-sceptics in his party and get around the principle of free movement by making conditions for migrants less attractive, thereby helping to reduce the level of immigration.

The Referendum debate itself was one of the most bitter, ill-informed and misleading debates I have ever witnessed. It was characterised by exaggerated claims, misinformation and promises that could never be kept from leading proponents on both sides.

A highly complex issue was reduced to a simple binary choice between leave and remain, saturated with bold emotional statements and political spin. Britain has always had an uneasy relationship with the EU since the time of Margaret Thatcher who resisted moves towards closer European integration – something successive UK governments have slavishly followed.

Although a number of relevant issues were debated during the referendum debate, including, agricultural policy, fishing, cost of EU membership, immigration and free movement, possible trade deals a la Canada or Norway, the consequences of leaving were never properly set out.  Significantly, the Irish border issue that subsequently became a major sticking point, was never discussed. News footage of goods in lorries passing swiftly through Norwegian customs into the EU in Sweden were shown with reassuring commentary suggesting post Brexit trade could run smoothly.

Those leading the Remain campaign embarked on what became known as 'project fear' and over hyped the projected long-term effects of leaving. This took priority over calmly and rationally setting out balanced arguments about the many benefits of EU membership.

Cameron badly misjudged the public mood. This was not a mistake Vote Leave intended to make. However, they countered by making exaggerated claims about the true cost of EU membership and promising the EU membership fee of £350 million a week going to Brussels would be redirected to the NHS.

Vote Leave also drew heavily on fears about excessive immigration, EU boats plundering our fishing stocks and our apparent inability to deport EU citizens committing crime – claiming they all could be solved by the UK controlling its borders and sending EU citizens without jobs home.

The public were assured a trading deal with the EU could be negotiated as member states imported more goods from us than we imported from them and would not want to risk losing this trade.

When Vote Leave won, a crestfallen Cameron immediately resigned and Theresa May took over as Tory party leader and prime minister. Some say this was because there was no other reliable candidate capable of uniting the Conservatives.

George Osborne swiftly left as chancellor to become editor of the London Evening Standard and a new team of largely untried and inexperienced ministers were appointed. May was handed the “poisoned chalice” of trying to keep the Conservative party together and simultaneously open negotiations with the EU to produce a withdrawal agreement.

On 29 March 2017, she formally invoked article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which set the clock ticking on the UK's withdrawal from the EU two years later. And with Brexiteer David Davis as the new Brexit secretary, there was cautious optimism of negotiating a good deal.

However,  it was not long before guarded optimism was replaced by an injection of realism at the difficulties of overcoming the many pitfalls in the long winding road ahead. A bewildered looking May confirmed this by doing the rounds on television saying that “no deal is better than a bad deal” - words that would come back to haunt her. So what went wrong?

Bitter negotiations that led to May's withdrawal deal

May's current dilemmas over Brexit is the culmination of bitter negotiations over the past two-and- a-half years. The team was led at different times by three Brexit ministers supported by a host of civil servants, and the EU side led by chief negotiator Michel Barnier.

Negotiations have been a shambles. From the outset, it became clear the UK was reluctant to set out its position, and instead attempted to cherry pick those parts of EU membership they wished to retain without, of course, accepting the fundamental principle of free movement. The EU side found this unacceptable and would not agree to any deal that undermined the integrity of the single market. 

The EU negotiating team became highly frustrated that the UK side were unwilling or unable, due to political divisions in the Conservative party, to say clearly what they wanted. It seemed to Barnier that they came to Brussels and “tried it on”, asking for what they thought they could get away with.

Also, the UK side failed to fully acknowledge that those who leave a club and stop paying for the privilege cannot expect to receive benefits as good as those who remain club members.

I am told by a source in Brussels that even the civil servants supporting both sides struggled to speak the same language. It was suggested to me that this was primarily because the public school educated civil servants from the UK were quite charming but “do not say what they mean and do not mean what they say”.

To elaborate on this cultural difference, political debate in the UK and Donald Trump's US is now saturated with spin. This can be found in European politics too but to a much less extent.

Based upon my experience of living and working in Finland and having contact with policymakers in Brussels, I would say European politicians tend to be more predictable and quite straightforward. 

During the negotiations the EU were understandably resistant to a deal that could be interpreted and spun in different ways by UK politicians back home. They saw that as a recipe for problems further down the road, especially as the terms of any trade deal was still to be worked out.  

May's current dilemma

With the clock ticking towards 29 March and with the “no deal” option still firmly on the table, there are those in May's government who are still hoping that EU ministers will blink, come to their rescue, re-open negotiations and drop the Northern Ireland backstop.

I think this is highly unlikely as they have spent over two years of difficult negotiations to arrive at the present compromise deal. When Barnier says that “we stand by the agreement we have negotiated and... the Irish backstop is part and parcel of the deal”, he means this. He has strong support from President Macron, Angela Merkel and other EU leaders.

The best May can hope for is the EU will issue a further 'statement of reassurance and good intent'. This will simply say 'subject to agreeing an acceptable trade deal, we anticipate the Irish backstop to be a temporary arrangement'.

If this scenario proves to be accurate, then May will clearly try again to get her deal through parliament, claiming that the 'extra reassurances' make it the best and only deal in town. The vote before the end of February is likely to be a little closer and less humiliating than last time but I predict will be rejected.

We will then be back to considering and voting on the various amendments, with a delay to leaving on 29 March (Yvette Cooper's amendment) likely to be seen as more acceptable and sensible, commanding greater support than either a 'no deal' or second referendum (my own preferred choice).

A formal request for a delay until, say, Christmas would be a face-saving move and give everyone more time to try and find a way forward. It would, of course, not please everyone, especially the arch Brexiteers on the Tory backbenches who would claim 'it fails to carry out the will of the people' and is a ploy by remainers to thwart Brexit. However, a delay would almost certainly be acceptable to the EU.

Implications for social work and social care      

It is ironic that much of what I wrote in my PSW article on the Referendum back in June 2016 about the uncertainties facing social work still apply. It is just that, after the shambles of the past two-and-a-half years, we are now much more aware of the problems associated with leaving. It is worth setting out some of the implications again. 

We are well aware of the economic benefits associated with the single market with some global firms saying they intend to transfer their head office to Europe. However, the EU promotes important social values too, in particular, a commitment to equality, fairness and social justice.

This accords well with the ethical principles of social work as set out in our mission statement and the International Federation of Social Work's (IFSW) core values. The IFSW charter sets this out and thus challenging discrimination and inequality is a justified part of our everyday practice as injustice is embedded in many social problems.

Currently, disadvantaged areas in the UK like Cornwall receive 166 million Euros from the special European Social Fund for projects to tackle poverty and so far the government has only made bland assurances about continuing this funding.  

In general terms the EU provides a broader legislative and policy context for all social work practice which it is hoped the UK government will adopt. Worryingly this has not been done yet. The EU influence on agency policy can be found through primary legislation in treaties (now agreed by qualified majority voting); secondary legislation though regulations and directives (the 48 hour Working Time Directive which our government allowed workers to opt out of); policy briefings and guidance; research reports and an enormous amount of annual statistical data.

EU statistical data provides a useful source of data for comparative social policy research and publications such as EUROSTAT enable us to compare policy and practice outcomes, social expenditure and different approaches across all the member states.

In the past this has acted as an incentive for the UK to look beyond our own borders at how other countries tackle similar social problems - child protection systems in Sweden, multi-disciplinary care of older people in the Netherlands and integrated mental health care the Nordic way in Finland. There is a danger that without EUROSTAT data forcing us to widen our horizons, Brexit could lead to a more insular approach. This must be avoided.

EU membership has facilitated social work practice in a number of discreet ways. For example, many urban councils have recruited social workers from EU countries to fill vacancies; European exchange networks where good practice lessons are shared; links with organisations like UNICEF whose funds support work with asylum seekers and refugees; important university exchange programs such as ERASMUS which enable social work students to spend a term in a European university.

It is unclear post-Brexit which of these programs will continue and whether government funding will be maintained. Vice chancellors from Russell Group universities have recently written a joint letter to the government asking for a commitment to continue research funding on a number of EU projects. There is clearly a lot at stake here.

Access to a range of health and welfare benefits for EU citizens will clearly be affected as these are linked to free movement rights. At present we are told the Government is renegotiating bilateral agreements with the EU on social security, pensions and access to health care. This would not only effect migrants in the UK but the estimated 1.5 million British people currently living in Europe who do not have unrestricted access to benefits in other member states.

I myself will be affected by this in Finland and it is one of the many reasons I support a second referendum. However, it remains to be seen what scheme is set up to replace the European Health Insurance Card. 

In the words of Charles Aznavour...

Brexit has raised issues that underlie the principles of democracy which transcend national borders and might only be achievable within a more harmonious and integrated political community. This explains why countries like Germany and France want closer political union, something the UK has always resisted since Margaret Thatcher went to Bruges and warned against the EU becoming a centralised socialist club.

The alternative to a more integrated EU, with decisions formulated in Brussels, is for greater self-reliance and independence in Westminster. The reality of this is that while transparency and accountability may be at times lacking, post-Brexit blaming Brussels will no longer be an option. An uncomfortable truth for the Brexiteers.

The question is how to make the EU and UK government in Westminster more open, responsive and democratic institutions committed to promoting justice and equality alongside their economic goals.

This is the only way that disadvantage, discrimination and inequality throughout Europe, highlighted by the current migration crisis, will be tackled. It requires our political leaders to forego national self-interest and show moral integrity and a wider social vision for the common good.

If we bale out of the EU on 29 March with some Ersatz deal or 'no deal' I will turn on my CD player and listen to Charles Aznavour singing, Yesterday when I was young...

Dr Paul Stepney is Adjunct Professor of Social Work at the University of Tampere in Finland

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers