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A major conference at DCU examined Europe's future in light of Brexit

25 Jan 2018 / Brexit Print

Populists seek to exploit fear and frustration – Benn

Labour MP Hilary Benn told a DCU Brexit conference on 25 January, 2018 that remaining in the customs union is the simplest and best way to continuing tariff-free trading which is essential to the British, EU and Irish economies, north and south.

Benn, who is chair of the House of Commons Brexit committee, questioned whether President Trump will be keen to see Britain selling even more goods into the American market, given his protectionist approach to trade. 

Benn said the first reaction of India to a request for a free trade agreement will be a request for more work visas for their citizens.

“Has China suffered disadvantage because it does not have a trade agreement with the EU?

"No, and in the pocket of every person in this hall today is proof of that, our mobile phones,” he said.

“I suspect that the word we will all hear a lot more of in the months ahead is divergence. To what extent does the UK wish to diverge from these common rules in the years ahead.”

He said trade negotiations are complex because they involve two nations each trying to protect their vital interests while seeking to gain advantages in the country with which they are negotiating.

Benn said the idea that Britain has been prevented from trading by membership of the European Union is nonsense.

Competitive advantage

He said the EU is worried that the UK will use its freedom to gain a competitive advantage in the years ahead. However he said he doesn’t believe another referendum would yield a different result.

“It’s parliament’s job now to speak on behalf of all of the people and to bring the nation back together, the 50 and the 48 per cent.”

He said that those who argue for a multi-speed, multi-layer EU as the best way to maintain unity should prevail over those who argue for faster, closer, deeper union but this will be for Europe’s citizens to decide.

“I just hope that in making that choice, the EU will at some point pause and quietly ask itself, how did we come to lose one of our most important member states.”

Benn views the Brexit vote as a timely warning on the gulf between citizens and politicians and a decision made because people felt they had no control over their lives.

He continued “The two great forces of our age…set out in the Atlantic Charter of 1941. The first is the self-evident truth that nations must work together to secure better economic and social conditions for all, as we deal with the great challenges we face as a world that increasingly pays no heed to national borders.

"The second, the innate thirst for self-determination so that people can shape their own future, the search for control.

“Understanding and responding to these forces is, I would argue, urgent and important work, if we are to see off the populists around us who seek to exploit the frustration, the fear and the anger that many people feel.

“If the last century has taught us anything, it is that international co-operation is at the heart of economic and political security.


“In Britain it was in the second half of that century that we came to realise that it was far better and more effective to seek to be a global power that achieves its goals through the influence that comes from working with others, rather than holding on to the empire through which we had become a dominant world power, aided of course, by the industrial revolution.

“Our future relationship with the EU, an increasingly important pole of influence in the world, will therefore be critically important in these uncertain times with unpredictability to the East in the Kremlin and to the West in the White House.

“This is no time for any of us to be retreating from what gives each of us security and influence in the modern world,” he said.

In his speech to the conference, President Michael D Higgins said that for the first time in many years, the future shape of the EU has become a matter of contestation and debate.

'Moral patrimony'

He said that the past ten years had severely tested our collective commitment to a “rich and enabling moral patrimony.”

He said it is important to use words such as populist, nationalist and ethnic, with care.

 “Until social and labour rights are given the same priority, if not a higher one, as economic freedoms in the treaties, the latter will prevail. These issues must be clarified  by public debate and through engagement with the European street.


“The delicate balance between the economy and society was implicit in the work of the Commission when it was led by Jacques Delors in the 1980s,” he said.

He concluded by saying that the European street will not give consent and support to the creation of what they correctly see as  “an enduring austerity union”.

“The laws of the market are seen as, and must be experienced as, instrumental not intrinsic,” the president said.

The economy must be subordinated to the democratic will of the people, he concluded.

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