Brexit – Tories skate on ever thinner ice

John Palmer on a deal that buys time for divided Tories but a formula that cannot be delivered. Labour should ready itself for a new European deal and revocation of Brexit. 

The 11th hour agreement with the European Union allowing negotiations to finally begin on the long term relationship between the UK and the EU only highlights the extraordinary precarity of the May government’s Brexit project. In a fudge designed to buy May a little more time, it is simultaneously being sold as preparation for a complete break with the EU and a deal which locks Britain into almost all the obligations of membership but with no voice or vote in law making. 

It is a formula which cannot and will not be delivered. Both the Euro-sceptic right and the ‘soft Brexit’ Tory factions know this. Both are manoeuvring to get a tactical advantage ahead of what all agree will be an eventual, unavoidable and full scale crisis. There must be a serious prospect that when the likely terms of the long term Brexit agreement do emerge, May will be toast and the Tory party might face a split on the scale of the 19th century free trade crisis. 

In the meantime no one, on any wing of the government, can really explain how Belfast and Dublin can be guaranteed no return to a ‘hard’ Irish border without the UK as a whole replicating virtually unchanged the terms of existing membership of the Customs Union and the Single Market. The one possible fudge – having a customs border between the north of Ireland and mainland Britain – was seen off by the hard line DUP. 

The EU institutions and member states have told London not to be under any illusion that it can ‘cherry pick’ the vital advantages of being in the CU and the SM while ignoring the obligations which go with that. The UK will not be able to negotiate trade deals with Trump or China or whoever by slashing health, environment or labour standards and retain access to the EU market. 

Right wing Brexiteer MPs comfort themselves with the belief that the EU needs a long term trade agreement as much as the UK. That is true only up to a point. The EU 27 do sell much more to, than they buy from the UK. BUT the dependence of the 27 on exports to Britain are a small fraction of the UK on its exports to the EU. 

It is virtually impossible to know who will win the low level civil war between hard and soft Brexiteers in the cabinet and Tory party. The commitments May agreed to in the first preliminary phase of the negotiations (continuing to pay into the EU budget for years to come, observing all EU laws during the so-called “transition phase” to 2021 and the continuing obligation to observe European Court of Justice rulings for a further eight years) are very difficult for the Tory Leavers to swallow. 

But they seem to be gambling on the very real possibility that the talks on a final deal fail and the UK might still be able to launch itself over the cliff without any agreement except minimal WTO terms of trade. That is what scares witless big British capital (and big foreign capital invested in the UK). 

The likes of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Phillip Hammond, and the so-called ‘realists’ know this perfectly well. Some of them seem to be counting on a Parliamentary vote designed to pass final judgement on the eventual agreement blocking any jump-over-the-cliff. 

They have some grounds for believing this. Quite apart from those MPs who have already declared their intention of blocking a hard Brexit, the Labour Party leadership is now clearly moving to the demand that the UK – in effect – remains part of the single market and customs union. 

Presumably worried that any overt commitment to retaining full EU membership might anger the tiny minority of pro-Leave Labour MPs (and an indeterminate minority of pro-Leave Labour voters) this is as far as the leadership is ready go at present. 

But that is to ignore the increasing attention which Jeremy Corbyn and John MacDonnell are paying now to the wider debate within the EU about the need for a new direction for economic, social and environmental reform. In recent speeches in Brussels and in Geneva, Corbyn stressed Labour’s continuing commitment to solidarity with workers’ demands for radical policy changes at EU level. 

One example of these trends is the outline support for a strengthened EU pillar of social rights and in particular the creation of a new European Labour Authority. This body is – for example – seen as an instrument to reform the EU Posted Workers’ Directive whose abuse by employers has led to the erosion of workers’ pay and conditions. 

Meanwhile pressure is growing on the government in Berlin to abandon its crazy austerity economic strategy (which was used to crucify the Greek people). This is coming not only from avowedly left wing governments like the Portuguese coalition but even from the Macron centre right government in Paris. 

If Chancellor Merkel is obliged to form a coalition with German social democrats, Berlin may have to adjust more to the new mood than it would wish. Which is not to underplay the potential risks involved with centre right and centre left politicians clinging together in a desperate attempt to keep the extreme right at bay. 

In the period ahead it would be good to hear more about how Labour wants to work in and with the EU to block some of the terrifying plans of the Brexit right to destroy social, labour, environmental and other standards in the cause of a Trump-style trade strategy. 

BUT however soft an eventual Brexit might be, an agreement leaving the UK (assuming it does not break up before long) with virtually all the obligations of membership but none of the democratic rights is not acceptable. Leaving the British people as law takers and not law makers must be rejected. 

This need not be the choice. Whatever the final outcome of the Brexit negotiations – and they will take much longer than anyone in Whitehall is yet ready to admit – this government looks to be in terminal decline. It is even possible that Jeremy Corbyn will lead Labour into a new general election well before the final shape of Brexit is agreed. 

Certainly the polls point to the probability of an overall majority for Labour from any election. This is hardly surprising given the near collapse of the NHS and many other public services, falling living standards and growing popular anger about grotesque inequality and hardship. 

If the worst Tory Brexit can be blocked by Parliament over the next year or two the question will arise: what now? The answer from a newly elected Labour government should be clear (indeed Jeremy Corbyn has already hinted at it). In effect we should want to talk to the EU about a far wider programme of cooperation and reform on common areas of concern and one which – if successful – could lead to a decision to revoke Brexit. 

It is quite possible that this scenario could arise much sooner than we think. The political situation domestically and world-wide is increasingly crisis prone and unpredictable. With a deranged Trump presiding in Washington and authoritarian but unstable regimes installed from Russia, through Turkey to China and beyond, this is not the time to sever the links of solidarity and shared basic democratic values with so many (if not all) EU states. 

On one thing we can be sure. The ludicrous proposals for a LEXIT (Left Brexit) are dead and buried. It failed to connect with reality at almost any point. It is disavowed by the left in almost every part of the European Union – even in France where the leftist La France Insoumise which scored an impressive voter support in the recent French Presidential election has abandoned talk of ‘leaving the EU’ or even abandoning the Euro. 


It is time for the European left to think through in some detail what concrete demands should be prioritised for a more democratic and social Europe. Of course, Europe is not the end of the road for socialists. It is, however, an essential staging post for the development of an emancipatory strategy for a democratic, socialist global order.

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