Coronavirus is dominating politics and all our energies are focused on combatting it. We still do not know how its legacy will shape our country, but decisions being taken over the next few weeks in the talks on our future relationship with the EU will play a key part in our recovery from the Covid-19 crisis.
It comes as a surprise to some that the talks are still taking place at all. Struggling to deal with coronavirus, many doubt the capacity of the government to focus on the agreement we need in trade, security and all the other areas under negotiation. Indeed, the ten rounds of talks planned before a crucial June review have been reduced to four, and those have inevitably been moved online.
But, even in these difficult circumstances, ministers have decided to press on and are insisting they will secure a good deal by the end of the year. They now have the responsibility to deliver on that pledge, and Labour will hold them to it.
So what should we see in the deal? Expectations have been steadily reduced over the last three years. We have gone from promises of the “exact same benefits” that we enjoyed as EU members, through ‘Canada+++’, to anything that provides the opportunity to break with protections for employees and the environment. But that is not what the Conservatives promised in the general election.
Their manifesto promised to implement Boris Johnson’s ‘great new deal’ with the EU. A deal based on the commitments he signed in the political declaration to secure an “ambitious, broad, deep and flexible partnership” that would entail “no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions across all sectors”. They pledged it would safeguard “workers’ rights, consumer and environmental protection” and include a “broad, comprehensive and balanced security partnership” underpinned by “continued adherence and giving effect to the European Convention on Human Rights”.
That is the minimum against which they should be judged, and the coronavirus crisis makes it even more important that they secure an agreement along these lines. As we face the biggest recession in a century, businesses and trade unions are asking: why make the situation even worse? The economic disruption of leaving the transitional period in December without agreement, or with a bad deal which falls short of their promises, will add to the economic hit caused by Covid-19.
We have left the EU, but it remains our closest neighbour and most important trading partner. We still share a continent in which security and judicial co-operation help to keep all our people safe. Labour will continue to make that case and hold the Tories to account on their promises.