Brexit-from chaos to what?
John Palmer on why a Corbyn led economic recovery programme will work best within the European Union with European allies.
Anything can happen warned the late Seamus Heaney, in one of his short, prophetic poems about the unpredictability of the modern world. He might have been thinking of the eventual outcome to the turmoil and threatening chaos in British politics triggered by Brexit.
Theresa May seems not to have the remotest idea how the internal strife in both her cabinet and the Tory party over the final Brexit deal will be resolved. Such are the tensions generated by differences over Brexit between rival factions of the party that, eventually, an outright Tory split, comparable to that generated by the Corn Laws in the 19th century, cannot be excluded.
Of course May’s own position as leader could fall victim to the Brexit turmoil before the Tory party conference convenes in October. But even if she is not surgically removed in the short term, it is difficult to see her leadership surviving intact through to March 31, 2019 ñ the date when the UK is due to formally leave the EU.
To add to the mounting uncertainty, there is now even a question mark over the March 2019 date itself – when the Article 50 process for leaving the EU is due to expire. The UK government is so far behind the curve in the negotiations with the EU – unable even to state clearly what its negotiating objectives in some key areas really are – that London might have to plea for the 2019 deadline to be extended.
The Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, with some cabinet support, says that for some years after 2019 the UK should still observe almost all the terms of EU membership ñ including free movement of workers ñ to secure continued access to the Single Market (SM) and the Customs Union (CU) during a institutional period. He believes this is essential to give time for the jittery business sector to prepare for the precarious risks when the UK is, finally, fully outside the EU.
The very notion of such a half in/half out transition is anathema to ultra-Brexiteers. The Tory right smells rank treachery. They fear that a transition might drag on indefinitely, risking a future Labour government or Tory Remainers eventually reversing Brexit and accepting continued free movement of EU workers in the meantime.
Even the hard line Euro-sceptics are, however, aware of growing unease widely in the ranks of British business. Uncharacteristically, big business so far has been a relatively marginal player in the wider Brexit debate. Disoriented by the rise of rightist Brexit populism and related English nationalism, big capital has not known how best to shape government policy.
But seeing the UK ship of state veering violently towards a cliff edge, which would leave big business in a very cold environment outside both the SM and the CU, industry leaders have, belatedly, started to speak out. Their objective is for the UK to obtain a transition period until at least 2022 with continued access to both.
The employers organisation, the CBI, is even suggesting an indefinite transition were this to be agreed (a very big IF) the UK would end up as a mere economic client state of the EU ñ fully bound by SM and CU laws and regulations (and supervised by the European Court of Justice), required to make financial payments to the EU and having to accept free movement of workers.
Whether Brexit is soft or hard, British people would have neither voice nor vote in EU decision making, would still be bound by EU laws and regulations affecting the SM and CU and would have to pay for future collaboration projects with the EU. For the left and the wider Labour Party the obvious response is straightforward: ìWe are ready to fight a general election committed to withdrawing our Brexit request if the Article 50 time limit has not expired. If it has, we pledge to negotiate re-entry to a reformed European Union as soon as possible!
For the right wing of the Tory party and their allies in UKIP, any half-way house ëultra-soft Brexit is seen as a threatened betrayal of the Leave cause. All their ëRed Linesí (no ECJ, no payments to Brussels, no free movement) would have to be violated. A revolt of Euro-phobic Tory MPs would surely be inevitable if the leadership agree such a deal.
The Labour Partyís agreed eight point criteria for judging a future Tory Brexit deal means that any agreement which does not meet these tests should be rejected. The Labour Party Front Bench has already clearly stated that the Party will hold the Brexit minister, David Davies, to account for his declaration that Brexit will ìfully re-produce all the advantages of Single Market membership. By definition leaving the EU makes this fanciful nonsense.
Rejection of a soft Brexit by Labour MPs (even together with the SNP, Green, Plaid and Liberal MPs) might not be enough to force the government’s resignation. But the addition of only a handful of pro-European Tory MPs (let alone some of the hard line Brexiteer Tory MPs opposed for completely different reasons) would plunge the government into utter crisis. This possibility raises the obvious question of What Now?
Under the new fixed term Parliament rules, even a dramatic defeat on Brexit might not qualify as a vote of No Confidence requiring the government to resign. But it would make either a new general election ñ or possibly a further EU referendum ñ almost impossible to avoid.
At this point, however, we should recall Heaney’s warning about the unpredictability of events. The government might after all decide that – faced with a humiliating rejection of a soft Brexit agreement – it would be better to break off negotiations with the EU without any agreement at all.
At this point a new Tory leader ñ drawn from the hard right ñ might decide there is little to be lost politically by jumping off the cliff. The calculation might be that there would be enough votes in latent English nationalism and UKIP style populism to offer some prospect of election victory ñ even if this led to the final break-up of the UK.
Such a Gotterdammerung climax would risk an unbridgeable split between the Tories and their business and financial supporters. Some Remain Tory MPs might even break ranks and not only support a No Confidence motion but seek to form a new Centreí party. But this option at present is less likely than some sort of soft Brexit.
The sheer confusion and uncertainty surrounding the eventual Brexit outcome requires a confident, united and far reaching Labour response. In spite of his remarkable general election result, Jeremy Corbyn has been under constant pressure from right wing and centrist Labour MPs ñ notably those representing constituencies which voted Leaveí ñ to settle for a soft Brexit.
For factional and career reasons, a smaller group of mainly former Blairite right wing MPs, have made a big issue of UK remaining a member of the Single Market and Customs Union. But the EU has made clear that full, permanent membership of these arrangements requires membership of the EU itself.
It is true that Norway has secured significant single market access for most (but not all) economic sectors. But it has to accept decisions affecting the Single Market taken by the EU. Norway is not in the CU. If Britain has a customs union agreement with the EU it will not be free to do whatever trade deals it wishes with other countries outside the EU. Turkey is outside the EU but while it has some customs union privileges it is excluded from the single market.
The Tories and most Labour MPs view EU membership in merely transactional terms. But for socialists a multi-national community like the EU offers the perspective of creating a transnational democracy capable of winning and securing more radical and sustainable economic, social and environmental reforms than can be achieved by the left acting purely at the national level.
The desperately needed economic recovery programme Labour champions under the leadership of Corbyn and John McDonnell would have incomparably greater effect if it is implemented in close coordination with our EU partners. That is obviously best assured through maintaining EU membership.
Building a European united front of the Left ñ in government and out ñ working through the EU as well as national political institutions for agreed objectives is vital. It would reduce the vulnerability of individual radical reforming governments to economic and commercial blackmail by global capital.
Of course no socialist can accept the EU as it functions now. The crucifixion of the Greek people by arrogant, austerity dogmatists in Berlin and Brussels must never be repeated. But the changes needed in the policies and structures of the EU need to go much further.
Jeremy Corbyn has rightly prioritised building much closer liaison with social democratic and socialist parties in the EU (not least to prepare a coordinated left alternative European economic recovery strategy.)
A Corbyn led Labour Britain can help to lead the EU in a radically different direction to that taken by the austerity obsessed European right. This is what British Labour’s friends, from Greece to Germany and from Portugal to Ireland, hope for. They admire Jeremy Corbyn’s resolute support for a border free Europe, and his commitment to the advancement of workers rights, environmental sustainability and social equality.
Victory at the next election for a Corbyn led Labour government committed to ensure Britain’s continued place in the European Union, would boost progressive politics across the continent. It also would hearten opposition globally to the Dark Side alternative offered by Trump, Putin, Erdogan and other would be authoritarians.
John Palmer is Chair, Greenwich Momentum steering committee