Richard Corbett: Tory Brexit talks show why Britain is teetering on the cliff edge

Richard Corbett

Once again, the Brexit talks have failed to progress, an apt end to the week for this stuttering, stalling driverless car of a government that is dragging Britain towards the cliff edge.

There was no significant progress in round six of the Brexit talks, with no substantial advancement on all three key issues where agreement is needed to move on to the next phase: the rights of EU citizens after Brexit, the Irish border, and the settling of the UK’s liabilities. After the talks, Brexit secretary David Davis said that the “focus has been on finding solutions to these issues”, yet we’re back where we started, only now with even less time to find a deal – the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has now set the government a deadline of two weeks to give “vital” clarification on the financial commitments it is willing to honour.

With each failed round of talks, the clock ticks down. Will we have moved forward by the December deadline for trade talks to commence? Will there be a deal in time to allow a vote of MPs? It must in any case be wrapped up in time for the vote in the European Parliament, where MEPs’ approval is needed for any deal.  At times, the government’s actions make a “no deal” scenario appear inevitable. And some ministers actually seem to want that.

On Monday, the prime minister said she knows “how important it is for business and industry not to face a cliff-edge”, yet she has now announced that the March 29 departure date will be set in stone in legislation, leaving no margin of manoeuvre at the end of the negotiations. She’s signalling that she is prepared to have Britain jump on that day, whatever the circumstances. No flexibility to extend negotiations if an agreement is nearly there, but not quite. No consideration of the possibility of staying as a member during the transitional period, or part of it, to still have a say on decisions during that period.

Even before this announcement, exasperated European colleagues have been saying that the likelihood that there will be no Brexit deal is “over 50 per cent”,  warning the Tory government it is living in “fantasy land”.

Indeed, it is because of her failure to have a plan beyond trying to keep her party together that we are stuck in this cycle of never-ending rounds of talks that go nowhere, bringing the prospect of no deal ever closer.

Whatever the hopes that Leave voters had for Brexit, the emerging reality is that this divided government is taking us to a chaotic, costly and damaging Brexit.

This can be seen almost daily and on all fronts. As we hit the midpoint between referendum day and Theresa May’s Brexit Day, here are the latest lowlights:

  • On Sunday, the Commercial Broadcasters Association warned thousands of jobs could potentially be at stake in the event of a “Hard” Brexit, where the UK leaves the EU with no formal trade agreement – one in four jobs in the UK broadcasting sector is with an international broadcaster, where more than £500m a year is invested in the UK in wages, overheads and technology;
  • On Monday, it was reported that Treasury minister Stephen Barclay said the UK faces having to pay another €30bn to leave the EU, to repay European Investment Bank loans for projects like Crossrail;
  • On Tuesday, US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross said that losing free access to Europe’s financial markets after Brexit would hurt Britain’s chances of striking a successful trade agreement with America, adding that Britain would have to reject European food safety laws to satisfy the Trump administration, meaning that if we manage to get a US-UK deal at all, it will lead to a diminution in food standards here;
  • On Wednesday, international trade secretary Liam Fox said Britain would ‘cut loose’ from EU regulations after Brexit, in other words workers’ rights, consumer rights, environmental protections and food standards will all be slashed in our bright new Brexit future;
  • …while the steel industry warned British jobs would be put at risk by Tory plans not to match the EU’s tough stance on dumped imports after Brexit – the government has said the UK will not toughen its trade defence measures even if the rest of the EU does;
  • On Thursday, an IPPR North report, State of the North 2017, warned Brexit will have a negative impact that will be nearly twice as large on the economy of the north of England as it will on London;
  • And yesterday, forecasts from the European Commission showed the UK is set to have the lowest growth of almost any EU country when it leaves the bloc in 2019.

And as for that extra £350m a week for the NHS? As the Tory response to NHS chief exec Simon Stevens’s demand this week showed, we’re as likely to see that money as we are to see Boris Johnson acting like the statesman we would expect our foreign secretary to be.

We cannot allow the scandals, rows and infighting in the government to distract us from the reality of what we’re seeing. The prime minister’s weakness is the reason we’re teetering over the cliff edge, with our country, our economy, our future set to be wrecked by a chaotic Tory Brexit that no one voted for.

Richard Corbett is MEP for Yorkshire and Humber and leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party.

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