Manuel Cortes: It would be madness for Labour to accept any Brexit deal which quietens our voice in Europe

It’s great to see Labour’s frontbench singing from the same hymn sheet on Brexit whilst the Tories are running around like headless chickens. Our party’s top priorities during negotiations are jobs and the economy. We are crystal clear, that we want tariff-free access to the single market and no new non-tariff burdens for businesses. We are also saying that the exact mechanisms to achieve this are less important than ensuring our jobs, our economy and our living standards are protected, rather than damaged, by Brexit.

So far, this is a great tune but the bum note is free movement. Labour says this will end when we depart the European Union (EU) but without it, our other aspirations look almost impossible to realise. Switzerland has tariff-free access to the single market but recently tried to limit free movement by seeking to introduce immigration quotas for EU nationals. Brussels’ response was brutal and blunt: if Switzerland introduces quotas then its privileged access to the single market would terminate. Brussels won the tussle. Free movement remains in a Switzerland which came to its senses, in the end choosing not to inflict upon itself the huge economic harm of losing tariff-free access to the single market. Britain is now in the throes of the same dilemma.

Labour appears to be signalling it favours an arrangement similar to those reached with countries who are either members of the European economic area or European Free Trade Association. I find it troubling that a party of the left is looking to prioritise future access to a market to which we already belong, whilst wanting to remove our voice from a say in the shaping of it. The EU will continue making the rules, to which we will be compelled to acquiesce, in the same way that EEA and EFTA countries do. We will leave the EU, relinquish our right to influence decision-making and, abandon our right of veto on key issues. This is sheer madness.

I voted in favour of remain with several, strong reservations. Mine had nothing whatsoever to do with free movement and everything to do with the neoliberal direction in which the EU was heading. I also wanted the European parliament to gain more powers so that decisions could be made more transparent rather than agreed through shady, behind-closed-door deals at the Council of Ministers. Shamefully, this is the approach which successive UK governments have favoured. I want a People’s Europe but you can’t achieve this by throwing your toys out of the pram.

As a package, I thought leaving the EU would be disastrous on an economic, political and human level. Events are sadly starting to prove my dire predictions right. A recruitment crisis for nurses in our NHS is already upon us, with just 46 EU nursing nationals this year wanting to bring their skills and expertise here. The pound is sinking, inflation is rising fast and living standards are taking a hiding as wages fall. Companies are already bypassing Britain when considering future investment. And, there is now a serious threat of relocation of jobs because of fears we will end up with trade tariffs when selling good and services to our former European partners.

Efforts to try and avoid the deep recession that tariff trade will create, will take us towards the worst of both worlds: a neoliberal free-market arrangement and an even greater democratic deficit. The EU will still make the rules for us because we will have relegated ourselves to their sidelines. Self-harm ain’t pleasant to watch. Labour has rightly said that the exact mechanism towards achieving our aim of tariff-free trade is less important that safeguarding our jobs, our economy and our prosperity. The logic behind this dictates that if we fail to reach a deal which secures our party’s aspiration, staying within the EU must therefore be an option. Articulating this would be to add coherence and clarity to our current stance. It also chimes with the overwhelming majority of our party members and with all those young people who have just propelled us into being a government-in-waiting.

Our prime minister is discredited and our European partners must think we are a laughing stock. This means that Labour has an incredibly strong hand to play during Brexit negotiations – something unthinkable just seven weeks ago. The young people galvanised into campaigning and voting for our party mostly want us to remain within the EU. They don’t want their futures jeopardised by some deluded notion of the greatness of a bygone and bloody, imperial British era. They want hope that our country will be better for them now and throughout their lifetime.  

Let’s have the courage to detoxify the rubbish said about free movement. Let’s not accept the narrative being put out by most of our media. Free movement is about the doctors and nurses who help us recover when we attend accident and emergency departments, it’s about the brickies and sparkies whose skills and hard graft keep our economy motoring, perhaps more importantly for those of us on the left, it is about breaking down barriers and bringing people together. Socialists must cherish and nurture this rather than fall into the trap of walking away from it.

Our leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has successfully in changed the narrative about our economy. We should now re-tune narratives on free movement and be as bold on this as we were with economic policies in our election manifesto. The problems our people face stem from Thatcher’s economic settlement and have nothing whatsoever to do with free movement.  

The tragic human-made disaster at Grenfell Tower is a terrible and poignant reminder of this. Exploitative bosses taking advantage of cheaper workers from abroad only happens because successive British governments have deregulated our labour market to enable employers to make even greater profits at our expense. An incoming Labour government will end this scandal and rightly confine it to the dustbin of history. A People’s Brexit can now be about taking back control of our economy for the many. Let’s fight for a reformed relationship with the EU, a People’s Europe, rather than simply going for bust by leaving!  

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