By Jack Parker
Paul Brannen is a member of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament and MEP for the North East England Region for the Labour Party.
In this exclusive interview with Palatinate’s Deputy Politics Editor, Jack Parker, Paul Brannen MEP discusses his successes in Brussels and Strasbourg, his time in student politics, and his first-hand observations of the Brexit process.
In spite of our approaching exit from the European Union, it’s business as usual for the UK’s MEPs. Since being elected in 2014 alongside Judith Kirton-Darling, Paul Brannen’s time as an MEP for North East England has been defined by his work on both the Parliament’s Environment Committee, and its Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee.
Brannen recently chaired the 2018 Forest City Project Forum in Brussels, an event held on the UN Day of the Forest to discuss how to get more trees planted, and how to source wood correctly.
‘As we use more wood and as we import it more from the global south, there’s a danger that we’re inadvertently causing deforestation. We have an obligation to ensure that the wood we import is being sustainably sourced,’ he explains.
Brannen’s interest in environmental affairs stems from his time working for Christian Aid, particularly heading up their work on climate change.
‘We were the first of the big agencies to work on climate change,’ he says, ‘and that was because Christian Aid was already seeing the impact climate change was having on poor communities. Since becoming an MEP, I’ve been looking for climate change issues to work on, and this was a niche that fitted with the two committees I sit on.’
Although his role as an MEP marks his first time as a paid politician, it’s far from his first experience of politics; he became closely engaged in student politics as President of the Leeds University Union. ‘Student politics is a really good grounding and a good way to cut your political teeth,’ he says.
‘Student politics isn’t at all just ‘play politics’ – it can be quite real politics. The engagement of young people in politics is incredibly important. Young people disproportionately don’t vote compared to older people, and if young people had voted in the same numbers as older people, we wouldn’t be leaving the European Union.’
‘Student politics isn’t at all just ‘play politics’ – it can be quite real politics.
When pressed on why so many young people choose to abstain from voting, Brannen highlights the complexity of the issue. ‘To some extent I think there’s a validity around the idea that it doesn’t matter who you vote for, it doesn’t make any difference.
‘I think we’ve gone through a period in British politics where maybe there was too much similarity between what was on offer between the main parties, and not enough difference. We’ve now got two main parties that are, in many ways, quite noticeably different to one another.’
‘You have to be honest – there’s an element of laziness as well. I think we maybe need to look at electronic voting and ways of making it easier for people to vote.’
Above all, he stresses that ‘what keeps a democracy ticking over is people taking part, and even if you think all the candidates are awful, your job as a voter is to work out which ones are the most awful, and to vote for the least worst. That’s partly how you stop the rise of the far-right or the far-left.’
Our conversation then shifts to the topic of Brexit. Spending much of his time working in Brussels, Brannen has experienced first-hand the ever-evolving situation with regards to Brexit.
When asked whether UK MEPs were subjected to animosity in Brussels and Strasbourg, he explained: ‘It’s going through stages. In the run-up to the referendum there was a sense of ‘please don’t leave’, and that was across the political parties and across the countries. Then there was the surprise phase as everyone realised what we’d decided to do, followed by a ‘we’re sorry you’re leaving’ phase.
‘Now we’re moving into a new phase, which I think is the realisation that because we’re leaving, there’s going to be less money. The budget is going to be 10 to 12% short, and this, I think, is beginning to grind and grate.’
He denies that this latest phase had generated hostility, however, adding that ‘there’s a sense of us causing them problems that they’re not entirely happy about’.
Despite being a net contributor, the United Kingdom does still receive some level of EU funding. In fact, North East England, the very region Brannen represents, has received over half a billion pounds of EU funding since 2007, more than any other English region. Regardless, the North East voted overwhelmingly to leave, by 58% to 42%.
Grilled on whether this pointed to a failing in the Remain campaign and in the efforts of pro-EU politicians in the region, Brannen claims that ‘on a North East level, we did try. We thought that the high amount of EU funding was our strongest argument’.
He points out that the main counter-argument he came across was the belief that Westminster would continue funding the North East in the same way as the EU. ‘The government couldn’t give us that guarantee last year. That’s my worry – we’ll have to wait and see.’
Brannen’s deep concern for the North East, the area in which he grew up, is evident. He cites the government’s leaked Brexit forecasts, which he says show that regardless of whether it is a hard or soft Brexit that is agreed, the North East is hardest hit of all regions.
‘If we have a hard Brexit, and I certainly hope we won’t,’ he adds, ‘[the North East] would see a drop in GDP of 16%, which represents an unemployment rate of 1 in 6. That’s staggering. We can’t cope with 16%.’
Whether people regret voting to leave is another question altogether. Brannen identifies how it is a story of two halves. ‘In the North East, there hasn’t really been a shift in public opinion so far. But my guess is that in ten years’ time, it’ll be quite hard to find over 50% of the population who still thinks that this was a good idea.’
Given his prediction of a shift in public opinion, I ask him whether he sees the UK ever returning to the European Union in the future. ‘Never say never,’ he says. ‘Stranger things have happened in politics.’
What he does predict, however, is that if Northern Ireland was given a choice between staying in the UK and leaving the EU, or remaining in the EU and joining a united Ireland, it would choose the latter. ‘I think there is a possibility that the United Kingdom will break up.
‘I think there is a possibility that the United Kingdom will break up.
‘Watch what happens in Northern Ireland, because that could be first. Then watch what happens in Scotland, as there’s a similar situation with the Scottish National Party. What then happens in England and Wales is anyone’s guess. It just depends on how badly hit we are as a result of leaving.’
But it’s perhaps Brannen’s final remarks that are the most thought-provoking. ‘As each week and month goes by,’ he says, ‘the complexity of leaving is increasingly plain to see, if you want to look.’
Photograph ‘Jude and Paul’ via Flickr