Brexit – where do we stand?


Brexit – where do we stand?

By Mick Brooks

The referendum vote on June 23rd that the UK should leave the European Union came as a shock to most commentators. It was widely believed that a vote to ‘Remain’ was in the bag, including by the then Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron miscalculated massively, and had to go.

For the labour movement the referendum campaign was unnecessary and a diversion. Cameron had promised the referendum in 2013 in order to prevent Tory voters going over to UKIP, and to placate his own Eurosceptic MPs. In other words the referendum was intended to fend off a threat from the right. The campaign itself was dominated on both sides by big business and conservative interests. It was utterly uninspiring. The ‘Remain’ campaign relied on sowing a fear of the unknown in the case of withdrawal – ‘project fear’. The ‘Leave’ campaigners resorted to outright lies – such as that Brexit would allow £350 million a week that the UK allegedly currently sends to Brussels to be spent extra on the NHS. In the media coverage of the debate Labour hardly had a look in.

For the labour movement, which side to support was a fine tactical decision. We were neither unthinking ‘Europeans’ (though some Labour MPs were) or committed isolationists and nationalists. It was necessary to consider the consequences of Brexit under a Tory government. Having secured a vote to ‘Leave’, right wing Tories would use the opportunity to tear up the inadequate protection of employment rights (and consumer and environmental protection) that EU law currently affords. For this reason the majority of trade unions supported Jeremy Corbyn’s line of ‘remain and reform’. Equally there were sound socialist reasons to quit the EU, which is very much a capitalist club.

Whether we voted to remain or to leave is now neither here nor there. The decision is done and dusted. Britain is now set to leave the EU on terms negotiated by the Tories, our class enemy. On the other hand Theresa May’s government is insecure, with a small majority in Parliament. It is clear they are clueless as to what will happen next.

What does the decision to leave mean? The problem with a referendum on such a broad issue is that different meanings can be read into the vote. The Tory government under Theresa May asserts that it shows that migration must be controlled more tightly. In fact no such inference can be drawn, but that is the Tory agenda in any case.

There has been some gloating from members of the ‘Leave’ campaign that some of the wild predictions of the ‘Remain’ camp that the UK would immediately be precipitated into recession have not taken place. This gloating is premature. The future remains very uncertain. It is definitely the case that decisions such as whether to relocate factories from the UK to the EU, which is entirely possible when Britain is no longer a member of the single market, will take time to work through the economy.

The Tories have landed themselves in a mess. It is no secret that prominent Brexiteers like Boris Johnson were motivated entirely by the intention to advance their careers within the Conservative Party by tapping the Euroscepticism of their backwoodsmen. Britain has been a member of the EU for more than forty years. Almost half our trade is with our partners in the single market. Untangling this will be a huge task for the government negotiators. Now they are lumbered with years of haggling over such stuff as phytosanitary certificates (these are certificates on the health of plants).

There is a vast mass of EU regulation that has been incorporated into UK law since 1973. What is to be done about this? Much of this is to harmonise best practice within the single market; regulations to improve the energy efficiency of vacuum cleaners is an example. Other regulations are intended to harmonise sales across the EU. Rules on electrical plug sockets and voltage are one of an infinite number of such regulations. EU rules have also dictated cleaner beaches in the UK. Do we really want to be swimming in shit? Is this what the Brexiteers meant by “taking back control”?

More seriously the Tories have no serious plan as to what they want out of negotiations and what they may be able to achieve.

The consensus of informed opinion is that the UK can’t have unrestricted access to the single market without allowing free movement of labour. Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande are quite clear on this point. Free movement of labour is one of the four fundamental freedoms of the EU, along with free movement of goods, of capital and of establishment (the right to set up service provision anywhere in the EU).

• We stand four square in defence of the UK’s need for unrestricted access to the single market. If that is lost, there is no doubt that jobs will disappear here.
• We also defend the right of workers to move wherever they think is best for them. Nobody is proposing restrictions on the power of capital to move where profit opportunities are best, whether inside or outside the EU. In that situation supporting restrictions on the movement of labour is equivalent to tying one arm behind workers’ backs in the battle with capital. It is ironic that right wing Labour MPs such as Chuka Umunna, who were enthusiastic supporters of ‘Remain’, including free movement of people within the EU, are now calling for controls on migration to Britain.

The labour movement needs to draw clear red lines right away. Melanie Onn, Labour MP for Great Grimsby, has made a start in introducing a bill on Workers’ Rights into the House of Commons. She is arguing that the UK should adopt the current standard of rights, set by the European Union, as a minimum for employee protection in this country. Jeremy Corbyn has appointed a shadow minister for Brexit to keep a watchful eye on what the Tories are up to.

One disturbing feature of post-Brexit Britain has been a spike in hate crimes, particularly against Polish workers. This must be condemned in the strongest terms. There have already been demonstrations in support of migrant workers.

As negotiations begin two immediate questions will loom:
• The first is the future of 3 million EU citizens living in the UK. Gisela Stuart, the Labour MP who campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union, has said that EU nationals living in the country have been “left in limbo” since the referendum. There is no doubt that prominent Brexiteers such as Nigel Farage played the race card during the campaign. This has stirred up anti-migrant feeling across the country. Theresa May has been accused of using the EU citizens here as ‘hostages’ in negotiations with the EU. Are they just to be thrown to the wolves, and issued with deportation orders after Brexit is accomplished?
• The fate of 1.2 million UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU is also in question. Many of these are elderly retirees who have been used to receiving health care in their host country in the same way that EU workers here can access the NHS. What will happen after Brexit? Will these mutual arrangements be torn up?

While we are still in the EU, the labour movement must continue to press its own demands. One reason the RMT urged its members to vote for ‘Leave’ was because EU rules back privatisation and make it difficult for national governments to renationalise the railways – which a majority of the British people support. Jeremy Corbyn has made it clear that we need the reform of EU rules on state aid if Labour is to continue to support the principle of a single market.

As negotiations proceed, there will be a blizzard of legislation introduced into Parliament, usually smuggled in as statutory instruments rather than being openly debated in the House. This will require careful scrutiny, but offers opportunities to the labour movement to improve conditions in the UK as well as to beat off threats.

The Common Agricultural Policy of the EU has been widely and accurately derided for its huge waste of money. Here is an opportunity to make the case for a reform of agricultural subsidies. To take one example, wealthy landowners in the UK get subsidies from the CAP for the upkeep of grouse moors. Since a day’s shooting is likely to cost £3,000 these subsidies cannot be argued as necessary to provide affordable food for the poor. Grouse moors are ‘managed’ by burning off the heather. This is not environmentally friendly. Endangered birds of prey such as hen harriers are shot or poisoned by gillies – all in order that aristocrats and their hangers-on can have their fun by slaughtering the grouse. One such parasitic laird is Paul Dacre, editor of the Eurosceptic ‘Daily Mail’. He has received £460,000 from the CAP since 2011. We suggest reform of such payments is overdue.

Likewise the Common Fisheries Policy has been blamed for overfishing and for obvious absurdities such as discard (throwing dead fish overboard because they’re the wrong sort of fish or because quotas have already been exceeded).There is no doubt that small fishing communities have been hard hit by the CFP. Jeremy Corbyn has exposed the real problem:

“The Prime Minister will be very well aware that reforms that were made three years ago actually put the power back into the hands of member states, and it is the UK Government who have given nearly two thirds of English and Welsh fishing quotas to three companies, thus excluding the small fishing communities along our coasts.” (Hansard)

Some have been calling for a second referendum. As we tried to show earlier a broad ‘Yes-No’ response to a complex interlocking set of issues can never provide a satisfactory political response to the situation. A second referendum is likely to raise as many questions as the first. In addition a demand for a second referendum will also inevitably be seen as an attempt to defy the express wishes of the people.

There has also been a debate about triggering Article 50 of the European Treaties. This is the provision that begins the process of quitting the EU. The labour movement has no power whether to trigger Article 50 or not. That is up to the government - subject to the pressure the Tories will inevitably be under from our former trading partners within the EU to settle the uncertainly involved in negotiation as quickly as possible.

We need at least the outlines of a satisfactory deal before we opt to support the implementation of Article 50. Otherwise Labour should vote against. We don’t want to buy a pig in a poke! We should use delaying powers as much as we can to prevent the Tories rushing ahead with a squalid anti-working class settlement. This is their mess. Let them lie in it.

The pamphlet produced by UNITE entitled ‘Brexit on Our Terms’ calls for, “no triggering of Article 50 until we see what exit from the EU will look like and what the alternatives are.” The union correctly perceives that, instead of treating all our trading partners in the EU as potential enemies as soon as the decision to leave was taken, the UK government should have negotiated the likely terms of future trading arrangements with them before triggering Article 50.

Once Article 50 is triggered, two years of fantastically complex negotiations on the terms of exit on every subject under the sun will follow. Until that process is completed two years later there will be no opportunity to even begin drawing up new trade deals. If Theresa May’s timetable is taken seriously, by 2019 the government will have nothing in front of it on trade agreements except a blank sheet of paper.

There is no doubt that a section of the Conservative Party and the ruling class have a vision of Britain’s future outside the EU, however evanescent. It is one of a low wage, offshore tax haven where standards of all kinds – environmental and consumer standards as well as working conditions - are driven down to the bottom. This is not what we want. It is hardly credible in any case that a country of almost 65 million people can become an island sweatshop, a tax haven for international criminals and a safe house for oligarchic money.

The High Court judgement against the government’s wish to push through the implementation of Article 50 is completely correct, despite the hysteria of the Brexiteers. Their slogan was “taking back control”. It is therefore ironic that the terms of exit are to remain a closed book to the British people, and that exit is to be achieved by use of the royal prerogative rather than the will of Parliament.

They should be reminded that Charles I, who was excessively addicted to using the royal prerogative rather than Parliamentary approval, was cut down to size as a result. Davis, Johnson and Fox are flying blind, as is Theresa May. Parliament is an imperfect expression of the popular will, but it’s all we have. The High Court decision is not a spoke in the wheel for Brexit; it opens up a debate on the terms and the kind of exit that Britain will make. It represents a opportunity for Labour to defend its own people and expose the vulnerability of the Tory government at the same time.

In or out of the EU the labour movement needs to present an alternative vision of Britain in the future.

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