Michael Hindley / Jan 2021
“Roll up that map (of Europe) it will not be wanted these ten years” (Pitt the Younger hearing of Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz)
On 1st January 2021 the UK entered a new relationship with the EU, by general consensus one based on a “bare bones” deal with much detail to be filled in during what will be complicated negotiations. Whatever your view of Labour’s actions between the “Leave vote” and the Withdrawal Act (January 2020) there is general agreement that Labour’s lack of coherence on EU and Brexit contributed significantly to Labour’s biggest electoral loss since the 1930s.
Keir Starmer, formerly in charge of “Brexit” policy, is now the party leader and has clearly decided that no policy on Brexit/FTA is better than an incoherent one. Pragmatically he is probably right. However, the wider party has to begin to look at policy options; it’s too early to come up with the “right” policy, but surely time to start sifting the possibilities by concentrating on the immediate future.
Johnson already had the numbers to get his deal through but Starmer’s support ensured an easy passage. Labour has realistically accepted or any foreseeable future our relationship with EU can only be under the auspices of a FTA.
My own view is that we are heading for a “Swiss minus minus” arrangement - a thin framework and a commitment to what will become a tiresome, endless negotiation of the actual details. These negotiations will be entirely hidden from public scrutiny but subject to much vested interest lobbying by those in the know.
An improved FTA must be the short-term priority in rebuilding our links with the EU. The position taken by the EU in these negotiations can be helpful to Labour’s cause. All EU FTAs have basic minimal components which can be helpful for Labour.
- Commitment to achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
- Recognition of core ILO standards
- Establishing civil society monitoring of FTAs.
Labour will need European allies to ensure our values are represented. Our sister parties are anxious that “Singapore on Thames” does not become a reality and a threat to their social standards and we must maintain contact and solidarity with them. So an improved FTA including commitments to social and environmental conditionality must be a demand of Labour in opposition.
Brexit has left many raw wounds which will immediately reopen if “Return” were to be the rallying cry. But finding ways to keep links open is realistic.
Labour must thoroughly explore which European programmes remain open to us. The academic and scientific community were horrified by the UK cutting its links with EU programmes and the UK’s leaving of the “Erasmus” programme was met with dismay on both sides. Labour must encourage the academic and scientific contacts to keep up their links with our full support.
Labour must make clear that any “return” must be to a reformed EU. Few, if any, Labour people were happy with the EU which we have now left. The best slogan was always “remain and reform”. Labour can’t make an arrogant precondition of “you reform and we’ll rejoin” but at same time we cannot make a case for eventual return to an EU with so many substantial and obvious “democratic deficits”. This means following and encouraging the reform movement within the EU demanded by our allies and finding ways through international links of joining those debates.
Progressive parties in the EU face very similar challenges in very similar circumstances and share very similar aspirations. Progressives in the EU remain our nearest and should be our dearest, even more so post-Brexit. Perhaps it’s time for Labour to at last become a European Party.