We are moving towards the next stage of the Brexit negotiations, and the government needs to up its game.
Today the TUC is launching a report putting a range of options for Britain’s future relationship with the EU to the test.
We want working people to know the extent to which those options meet their needs and interests.
And our tests show there is only one option currently on offer which would work for working people: membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) like Iceland and Norway.
We’re open to other suggestions, but so far no one has come up with an alternative that scores anywhere near as high.
The trade union movement’s priorities for Brexit are clear.
First, jobs and living standards must be protected through frictionless trade. Second, workers’ rights in Britain must keep pace with the rest of Europe. Third, citizens must be able to enforce consumer, environmental and labour standards. Fourth, workers must get a say over trade issues through union involvement. And finally, the Good Friday Agreement must be protected.
We tested seven options – the ones that get most airplay, against these criteria:
- Relying on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules;
- Establishing a customs union with the EU, like Turkey;
- A bilateral free trade agreement such as the ones the EU has with Canada (CETA), Korea and Japan;
- A Swiss-style, issue-by-issue set of agreements;
- A “bespoke deal” such as the government has suggested – essentially cherry picking the best bits of EU membership with none of the responsibilities;
- A Ukraine-style “deep and comprehensive free trade agreement”; and
- Membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement – often described as the Norway option.
Our report shows that only the last of these gets anywhere close enough to meeting our tests. It would still mean leaving the EU, but working people wouldn’t lose the benefits of single market membership.
Whatever option is adopted, we need to manage migration better to crack down on exploitation of migrant workers and undercutting of the existing workforce. And we need to ensure that the government can deploy state aid, including nationalisation, to meet the needs of working people and their communities.
For rights at work, we must keep a level playing field with the EU. We cannot have a bad deal that leaves workers in Britain stuck as second-class citizens when improvements are made in the rest of Europe.
Membership of the EEA – outside the European Union – gives us the scope to both protect and build on the rights at work people in Britain have today. Anything less would be a license for a future Conservative government to slash workers’ rights at will.
And EEA membership will safeguard
Trade unions have made it clear that working people need a jobs-first, rights-first Brexit. That means keeping all options on the table. But instead, ministers are playing Russian roulette with people’s jobs, rights and livelihoods.
It’s time for the government to stop drawing red lines, and go back to the drawing board instead.
Owen Tudor is head of EU and international relations at the TUC.