What the Lib Dem manifesto says about Brexit

What the Lib Dem manifesto says about Brexit

“Britain is better off in the EU.”


The Liberal Democrats have published their staunchly pro-EU manifesto today, with a full page image of Tim Farron addressing an anti-Brexit rally on the second page setting the tone from the start. Remarkably, it opens with the concession that it is not a manifesto for government, with Tim Farron instead asking voters to “give me your support to make the Liberal Democrats the official opposition to Theresa May’s Conservative government.”

The opening chapter is dedicated to the EU, with the Lib Dems pledging to “Protect Britain’s Place in Europe”.

  • Liberal Democrats are open and outward-looking. We passionately believe that Britain’s relationship with its neighbours is stronger as part of the European Union. Whatever its imperfections, the EU remains the best framework for working effectively and co-operating in the pursuit of our shared aims. It has led directly to greater prosperity, increased trade, investment and jobs, better security and a greener environment. Britain is better off in the EU.
  • Liberal Democrats campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU. However, we acknowledge the result of the 2016 referendum, which gave the government a mandate to start negotiations to leave. The decision Britain took, though, was simply whether to remain in or to leave the European Union. There was no option on the ballot paper to choose the shape of our future relationship with the EU on vital issues including trade, travel or security.

An honest admission from the Lib Dems that they wanted Britain to remain in the EU, and still do. Notably, they stop short of saying that they “accept” the referendum result, saying only that they “acknowledge” it. However, few people are likely to agree with the assertion that the referendum only gave the government a mandate “to start negotiations to leave” – as recent YouGov polling shows, the vast majority of people have taken the referendum as a clear instruction for Britain to leave the European Union. The line of argument that there was “no option on the ballot paper” to choose the precise shape of the Brexit deal forms the basis of the Liberal Democrats’ justification for calling for a second referendum.

  • While much remains uncertain about Theresa May’s approach, it is now clear that the Conservatives are campaigning for a hard Brexit. This means leaving the single market, ending freedom of movement and abandoning the customs union…

As many leavers would argue, leaving the single market and the customs union and ending freedom of movement isn’t “hard Brexit”, it is simply Brexit.

  • At the end of negotiations, there will be a decision on the deal. The Conservatives want the decision to be taken by politicians. Liberal Democrats believe the British people should have the final say.
  • That’s why, when the terms of our future relationship with the EU have been negotiated (over the next two years on the Government’s timetable), we will put that deal to a vote of the British people in a referendum, with the alternative option of staying in the EU on the ballot paper.
  • We continue to believe that there is no deal as good for the UK outside the EU as the one it already has as a member.

The Liberal Democrats’ key pledge on Brexit is to hold a second referendum, which would be a straight choice between accepting the Brexit deal as negotiated, or remaining in the EU. They then make it clear that they would back staying in the EU, regardless of what that deal is.

This is problematic for a number of reasons, not least because the Lib Dems have already admitted that this is a manifesto for opposition, not a manifesto for government, so it is not clear under what authority the Lib Dems “will put that deal to a vote of the British people”.

Secondly, they have said that they would hold a vote after the terms of the “future relationship” with the EU have been agreed, but under the EU’s timetable, the details of the new relationship will not be agreed until after Britain has already moved to a transitional status, after the two year Article 50 process has finished. Britain would not be able to remain in the EU at this point, as it would already have left – it would need to reapply through the Article 49 process.

Even in the unlikely scenario that the UK does have a fully finalised post-Brexit deal on the table before the end of the Article 50 process, it is difficult to see how this would be done in time to run an entire national referendum before March 2019. Nor are there any serious suggestions that Article 50 can be legally reversed now that it has been triggered.

The second half of the Brexit chapter outlines what the Lib Dems will use their “strength in parliament to press for” during the negotiations. (Square brackets indicate further Brexit pledges from other sections of the manifesto):

  • Protection of rights for EU citizens and UK citizens: We will press for the UK to unilaterally guarantee the rights of EU nationals in the UK, ending their ongoing uncertainty… We will urge the government, and use our influence with Liberal leaders in European countries, to secure the same rights for UK citizens living in European Union countries.

Like Labour, the Lib Dems are calling for a unilateral guarantee of the rights of EU nationals in the UK, although there is little attention paid as to what effect this could have on rights of UK citizens living in the EU, beyond a weak commitment to “urge the government” and use their “influence” with other Liberal European politicians to “secure the same rights”.

  • Membership of the single market and customs union: We believe that any deal negotiated for the UK outside the EU must ensure that trade can continue without customs controls at the border, and must maintain membership of the single market, which smooths trade between the UK and the continent by providing a common ‘rule book’ for businesses and a common mechanism to ensure that everyone abides by the rules.
  • Freedom of movement: We support the principle of freedom of movement… Any deal negotiated for the UK outside the EU must protect the right to work, travel, study and retire across the EU. Any restrictions sought by the government must take account of the vital importance of EU workers to the British economy, including public services.
  • [7.8]: Recognising their largely temporary status, remove students from the official migration statistics.
  • [7.8]: Establish a centrally funded Migration Impact Fund to help local communities to adjust to new migration and meet unexpected pressures on public services and housing.

The Liberal Democrats are consistent in being in favour both of membership of the single market and of freedom of movement, given that single market membership, whether as part of the EU or EEA/EFTA, is contingent on accepting EU freedom of movement. Their policy of continuing freedom of movement is likely to be contentious, although there is somewhat of a fudge in the next line where they give various conditions for “any restrictions sought by the government”. Their policies to remove international students from migration statistics and establish a Migration Impact Fund are substantially the same as policies also put forward by Labour in this area.

The “common mechanism” they are referring to which ensures that “everyone abides by the rules” of the single market is presumably the European Court of Justice. Theresa May and the Conservatives have previously ruled out the continued jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice after Brexit, while Labour have avoided the issue altogether in their manifesto.

  • Opportunities for young people: …we will do everything we can to protect Erasmus+ and other EU-funded schemes which increase opportunities for young people.
  • Science and research funding: …we will campaign against any reduction in investment in UK universities and for their right to apply for EU funds on equal terms.
  • [4.4]: We would guarantee to underwrite funding for British partners in EU-funded projects such as Horizon 2020 who would suffer from cancellation of income on Brexit.
  • [5.2]: Maintain membership of Euratom, ensuring continued nuclear co-operation, research funding, and access to nuclear fuels.

There appears to be broad agreement between all the major parties that the UK should continue to take part in collaborative programmes with the EU, such as Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020, which already involve non-EU countries as full members. However, the phrase “EU-funded” is misleading as this is simply money that comes from UK taxpayers in the first place. The UK is currently the second-largest net contributor to the EU budget, making a net contribution of over £10bn a year, even after payments have been returned to the UK in the form of agricultural subsidies and other payments from the EU budget.

While Euratom is a distinct entity from the EU, it relies on the EU institutions for its functioning, and Theresa May has already indicated that the UK will be withdrawing from Euratom along with the EU in the Article 50 letter. Euratom does, however, already involve countries including Switzerland, Russia and China with various forms of associate membership. The Lib Dems are calling for Euratom membership to be fully maintained, while Labour’s equivalent policy was watered down in the final version of their manifesto to the UK simply having an “equivalent relationship” with Euratom after Brexit.

  • Defending social rights and equalities: Many important protections such as the right to 52 weeks’ maternity leave and rights to annual leave are currently based on EU law, and many of these rights have been upheld at the European Court of Justice. Liberal Democrats will fight to ensure that these entitlements are not undermined.
  • Maintaining environmental standards: …Liberal Democrats will ensure that everything is done to maintain those high standards in UK law, including the closest possible co-operation on climate and energy policy.
  • Oppose any attempt to withdraw from the ECHR.

The claim about maternity leave is dishonest at worst, and seriously misleading at best. The EU’s statutory minimum period for maternity leave is 14 weeks, whereas in the UK it is far higher at 52 weeks. Beyond this major inaccuracy, the Lib Dems are setting out a similar position to Labour in opposing any changes to workers’ rights and environmental protections after Brexit, although it does not feature as heavily in their manifesto as it does in Labour’s. The Lib Dems have also committed to opposing any attempt to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, although this is legally distinct from the European Union.

  • Respect for the interests of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: We will fight to ensure that the priorities and long-term interests of the nations of the UK are fully taken into account during negotiations. We will oppose any moves that threaten the political stability of Northern Ireland. We will also campaign to protect the rights of the people of Gibraltar.
  • [9.2]: We will work with devolved parliaments and assemblies to allocate to them any powers repatriated as a result of Brexit in their areas of responsibility, and ensure that the devolution of any repatriated powers or responsibilities does not disadvantage the nations of the UK.
  • [9.5 Northern Ireland]: Maintain the common travel area and freedom of movement.
  • [9.5 Northern Ireland]:Protect the current financial settlement and the funding of programmes supporting peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

The Lib Dems pledge to work with the devolved administrations to repatriate powers to them after Brexit, although they stop short of Labour’s pledge to introduce a “presumption of devolution”, where “devolved powers transferred from the EU will go straight to the relevant region or nation”. There is broad agreement between all parties that the Common Travel Area and open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland must be maintained.

The Lib Dem commitment to “protect the rights of the people of Gibraltar” is somewhat weaker than that offered by Labour, who have pledged “no change in the status or sovereignty of Gibraltar”.

  • Law enforcement and judicial co-operation: Europol, the European Arrest Warrant and shared access to police databases have helped make Britain’s streets safer. We will fight to maintain maximum co-operation to ensure criminals are pursued quickly and effectively, and police are not frustrated by huge amounts of red tape.

Continued cooperation on law enforcement is another area where the main parties are generally in broad agreement.

  • [5.5]: Despite reform, the Common Fisheries Policy has failed to deliver the economic or environmental objectives necessary and has suffered from being remote, overly centralised and bureaucratic. Hard Brexit and the loss of export markets threatens to further damage the industry, which has long suffered from being used as a bargaining chip by UK governments. Liberal Democrats would defend and maintain our fishing industry by not allowing fishing rights to be traded away against other policy areas, and work with the industry and other stakeholders to develop a national plan for sustainable fisheries.

This appears to be less of a policy pledge and more of an acknowledgement that the Lib Dems dislike the Common Fisheries Policy but haven’t worked out what their desired alternative is yet, although withdrawal from the Common Fisheries Policy would not be possible under the Lib Dems’ preferred scenario of remaining in the EU. However, it is worth noting that the only seat currently held by the Lib Dems in Scotland is Orkney and Shetland, held by Alistair Carmichael, where fishing is a particularly important issue.

Concerns over the UK fishing industry post-Brexit have predominantly come from pro-Leave fishing groups and UKIP, who are worried that the Conservatives will not commit a full withdrawal from the Common Fisheries Policy, which would mean that Britain would not regain its full Exclusive Economic Zone as it is entitled to under the UN Law of the Sea. Hence the Lib Dem pledge to not allow “fishing rights to be traded away” is interesting in this regard – is this a commitment not to compromise on any of the UK’s potential fisheries after Brexit, as many Leavers would like, or is it a more predictable pledge to secure fish exports to the EU after Brexit?

The manifesto also includes further pledges on protecting “support for domestic industries such as farming, tourism and the creative industries”, as well as “regional support for deprived areas”, referring to the EU’s structural funds which are redistributed to certain parts of the UK. The Lib Dems also call for the City of London to “retain its full rights in EU financial markets” and for the retention of “traveller and tourist benefits such as the European Health Insurance Card, reduced roaming charges and pet passports”.

Ultimately, it is a manifesto of two halves when it comes to Brexit. The first is the headline policy of calling for a second referendum in which the Lib Dems would back remaining in the EU over any alternative, in the vein of this being a “manifesto for government”. This, however, is something which the introduction explicitly disavows. The other side is the “manifesto for opposition” – the Lib Dems setting out what they will do to oppose Theresa May’s Conservative Government, who they have already conceded the election to.

But how can they be sure which manifesto their voters are really voting for? Perhaps two Lib Dem “options on the ballot paper” would help to clarify exactly which set of manifesto pledges people are voting for. Otherwise, there’s always the option of holding a second general election to sort the question out.