Despite the sudden flow of so called detailed papers from the government on Brexit, Labour’s position remains deliberately vague and appears reluctant to offer any detailed alternative policies.
This position is typified by such statements from Keir Starmer that Labour will “prioritise jobs and living standards”. Labour wants to retain all the benefits of the single market and customs union but is not committed to remaining members of those bodies but would be flexible and co-operative with our EU partners. Owen Jones rationalised this approach in a recent television interview insisting that “the Conservative Party will own Brexit and its consequences”. Labour is reluctant to share the burden and high political cost of a Brexit failure by either rescuing the government from a quagmire of its own making or in any way sharing the responsibility for Brexit.
There is a lot to be said to support this strategy. However, Labour also wants to avoid being elected to govern the country that is over the disastrous cliff edge. If, by March 2019, Britain fails to reach an agreement with the EU then that is where we could be.
The government’s stated aim is to avoid a cliff edge by reaching an agreement on an “interim or transitional” deal. Labour supports this aim.
The recent joint newspaper article by Liam Fox and Philip Hammond was an attempt to present a united cabinet. But the apparent unity on the need for a transitional period could not stretch enough to provide any details. Such as:
• How long the period should be?
• Is it a transition or effectively just more time to negotiate an agreement?
• How to have a transition without an agreement on the destination?
The government is clearly deeply divided on these questions. Should Labour be outlining in greater detail a way forward that the government is incapable of providing?
The government’s position papers may lack sufficient detail but they highlight the complexity of every area of policy such as Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic, free movement and customs arrangements. They also demonstrate the various ways the different areas such as regulation, the single market, customs and the ECJ are inextricably interwoven as one dynamic organism. This is why a leading EU spokesman made sense saying “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”
It is very unlikely any agreement on our future relationship can be reached by March 2019. But to avoid the disastrous cliff edge we need to have something in place by March 2019.
Given the overlap between our existing EU membership and and our future relationship is difficult to see how even the terms for leaving the EU will be agreed by the March deadline.
Labour supports an agreement approximate to the status quo allowing us to enjoy the same benefits as other EU members for an interim period while an alternative agreement is reached and implemented over a transitional period. Others such as Stephen Kinnock have suggested a European Economic Area (EEA) based transition deal as a bridge to a comprehensive deal which, he believes, will take years to finalise.
It is difficult to imagine the hard Brexiteers in the Conservative party agreeing to either of these options in time for the government to negotiate such terms by March 2019. The government has set its course on trying to reach an agreement that is both radically different than the status quo (even on a temporary or transitional basis) such as the proposed new and untested customs union across the island of Ireland.
There will not be the time or the political appetite in the EU to reach such an agreement by March 2019? Even an agreement based on the status quo would not be without its legal and political problems, and therefore a high-risk venture.
Labour’s dilemma is that if because of the toxic division in the Tory party we end up with no deal and over the cliff edge, a newly elected Labour government would be severely hampered in delivering the promised improvements to jobs, living standards and public services.
Those who want a clean Brexit know that they can succeed by default by their intransigence, allowing time to run out. By providing a way to avoid a cliff edge Labour can isolate those hard Brexiteers and provide the Tory Remainers with an alternative.
As we move closer to the March 2019 deadline we may be faced with only one option if the cliff edge is to be avoided. That is to extend the article 50 period for another three years. The article 50 rule as a mechanism to withdraw from the EU with its two-year timetable was never suitable for a country the size of Britain with our deep and complex relationship developed over 44 years.
Therefore, the sooner both sides accept the inadequacies of article 50 the better. Extending the time allowed to resolve the crisis between Britain and the bloc will at least provide some measure of temporary security to business and European citizens until 2022.
Labour should be consulting with our friends in the EU on how this could be achieved, given that any extension will require the agreement of all other member states.
Philip Beyer is a Labour activist in Solihull.