THE REFERENDUM ON LEAVING THE EUROPEAN UNION was not of our making. David Cameron proposed it in order to settle the internal warfare within the Tory Party.
Whether we voted to remain or to leave is now neither here nor there. 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. That was not on the ballot paper, but that is their agenda in any case.
We are entitled to know what the government’s priorities are before Article 50 is triggered. Article 50 of the European Treaties is the provision that begins the process of quitting the EU. The labour movement has a duty to insist on its own priorities and has the right to vote against the implementation of Article 50 if Brexit is used as an excuse to trash workers’ rights. The High Court judgement opposing the government’s intention to push through the implementation of Article 50 without democratic consultation is correct, despite the hysteria of the Brexiteers. Their slogan was “taking back control”. It is therefore ironic that the terms of exit may remain a closed book to the British people. We don’t want to buy a pig in a poke!
For May, exit is to be achieved by use of the royal prerogative rather than the will of Parliament. Parliament is an imperfect expression of the popular will, but it’s all we have. In effect May wants to assume dictatorial powers over the process of negotiation. She 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.
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 argues that the UK government should negotiate a transitional trade agreement with the EU before triggering Article 50.
We need to open up a debate on the terms and the kind of exit that Britain will make. This represents an opportunity for Labour to defend its own people and expose the vulnerability of the Tory government at the same time.
Once Article 50 is triggered the British government will be plunged into fantastically complex negotiations to extricate Britain from the EU for at least two years over such stuff as phytosanitary certificates (certificates on the health of plants).
Britain has been a member of the EU for more than 40 years. Almost half our trade is with our partners in the single market. What is to be done about the vast mass of EU regulation that has been incorporated into UK law since 1973?
Much of this legislation is to harmonise best practice within the single market - regulations to improve the energy efficiency of vacuum cleaners is one example. Other rules are intended to harmonise sales across the EU. Rules on electrical plug sockets and voltage are examples 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 sh*t? Is this what the Brexiteers meant by “taking back control”?
The consensus of informed opinion is that the UK can’t have unrestricted access to the single market after exit 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 their negotiations with capital.
» The labour movement needs to draw clear red lines right away. Some workers’ employment rights as well as environmental and consumer protection laws are enshrined in EU legislation. They must not be magicked away in negotiations!
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. 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 survive as an island sweatshop, a tax haven for international criminals and a safe house for oligarchic money.
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. Jeremy Corbyn has appointed Keir Starmer as Shadow Minister for Brexit to keep a watchful eye on what the Tories are up to.
Two immediate questions will loom: » The first is the future of 3 million EU citizens living in the UK. 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?
If Brexit proceeds, we have the opportunity to fight for reforms to institutions inherited from the EU. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the EU has been widely and accurately derided for its huge waste of money. Here we can 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 ghillies – 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 (CFP) 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. A broad ‘Yes-No’ response in a referendum to a complex interlocking set of issues can never provide a satisfactory political response – as we have seen. 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.
Only after the laborious negotiations following the implementation of Article 50 will the government be able to begin working out trade deals with the 197 other countries in the world. If Theresa May’s optimistic timetable is taken seriously, by 2019 the government will have nothing before it except a blank sheet of paper. Of course as negotiations proceed it is possible that the wheels could fall off the Brexit wagon. This is the Tories’ mess. Let them lie in it.
In or out of the EU the labour movement needs to present an alternative vision of Britain in the future.