A second referendum on EU membership remains a possibility, insisted Lord Mandelson on the day Article 50 was triggered, even as he urged public servants opposed to Brexit to “get on with it and carry out the public will”.
Mandelson said it was now the job of politicians to hold the government to account as it entered into negotiations with the EU27 over the terms of Britain’s divorce.
He warned that the negotiations were the “biggest, most complicated policy challenge any country has faced in our lifetimes” because the EU was built on “40 years of progressive integration without any thought of how you put it into reverse”.
But he said that the public will over Brexit amounted to only 37 per cent of the eligible vote in the referendum.
“If the facts change or become clearer – which they weren’t in the campaign – people are entitled to change their minds,” said Mandelson.
“Parliament has to carefully scrutinise what the government is achieving, the public has to be advised of what progress is being made. If the public wants to change its mind then it’s up to Parliament to reflect that.
“Parliament might want to do that through its own vote or it might do so by calling a second referendum. It’s entirely speculative at this stage to predict anything but the job of Parliament is to reflect and express the public will.
“It’s done so in agreeing to the triggering of Article 50 but that is not the end of the process. There’s an enormous amount of water to flow under very many bridges between now and the end.”
Theresa May’s Article 50 letter to EU Council president Donald Tusk urged that talks on Brexit happen at the same time as discussions on a future trade deal – a parallel move that EU negotiators have explicitly ruled out. The letter emphasised the threat to EU-UK co-operation on security issues if that was not the case.
“It’s politics which is driving the British government’s decision. They can’t be surprised if they get a lot of politics back.”
Mandelson, European Commissioner for Trade between 2004 and 2008, said the European Commission would enter into negotiations with London in a “professional, business-like and pragmatic way”. But he added: “The British government is not creating much leeway or flexibility for the negotiations.
“They’ve started it by tabling a set of red lines which suggest that the government wants to take the country out of every single bit of the EU. Well, with that degree of leeway on offer, they can’t expect much leeway back. Or to put it a different way, it’s politics which is driving the British government’s decision. They can’t be surprised if they get a lot of politics back.”
Mandelson was speaking at the launch of Metropolis, Manchester Metropolitan University’s new research-led thinktank. He is MMU’s chancellor.
Some estimates of the bill the country would have to pay to settle its debts with the EU – covering staff pensions and committed spending – have reached £60 billion.
Mandelson said: “I don’t know how much exactly it will be but if you take the entire waterfront of public spending and our entire GDP and the time over which we will be paying this sum, it will boil down to very little set against the more important negotiating challenge, which is to secure our trade with Europe.
“By definition, Brexit hasn’t started.”
“My advice to the government is deal with the divorce as quickly as possible because it’s not the top priority and concentrate instead on negotiating a replacement trade deal, because so much of what we sell and buy is to and from Europe’s single market. That’s where our bread and butter lies. That’s therefore what should be our priority.
“By definition, Brexit hasn’t started. Brexit won’t start until we have negotiated a divorce over the next two years. The repercussions on Brexit are not going to be felt until after that two years when we are trying to secure our trade with the rest of Europe. That’s where the proof of this pudding is going to be, not the decision of the referendum, not the two-year divorce negotiations we are entering into now, but what will happen after in the next five to 10 years.
“During the referendum the forecasts made by the Treasury were for what would happen to the British economy and its size up until 2030, not what would happen in the next two or three months. That’s where the test will be for the British economy – what we are able to negotiate after Brexit and how we are able to secure our trade and manufacturing investment by international companies in the UK. And that test will only become apparent over many years to come, not a few months.”
Acknowledging that a public loss of trust in experts had been one feature of the referendum campaign, Mandelson said one of the functions of organisations like Metropolis was to go some way in restoring a “bit of respect for intellectuals and intellectualism”. It is not a political party or campaign but is trying to make “better politics and better outcomes for people in this country”.
Dr Cristina Chiva, lecturer in European politics at Salford University, said: “The metaphor of a divorce which is often used to describe this process is quite an appropriate one, as the outcome of those negotiations depends entirely upon how reasonable both parties choose to be.
“We won’t know for a very long time what the outcome will be of going solo. That will probably become apparent after a long period of time and will depend not on Article 50 but on whatever trade deals we are able to get with the EU.”