With no prospect of a deal in sight and barely five months to the end of the transition period, the UK’s future relationship with the European Union is shrouded in damaging uncertainty. After the UK left the EU in January, the government’s original plan was to use this transition period to allow government departments, businesses, public bodies, consumers, holidaymakers and everyone else to prepare for the biggest changes for a generation.
But seven months down the line, and with the clock ticking, there is still an alarming lack of clarity about what – if any – deal Boris Johnson and his government might be able to secure. The signs are not good and businesses are understandably worried.
Today, I will be visiting the site of the government’s proposed giant lorry park in Kent with my Labour colleague Rosie Duffield, the MP for Canterbury. We want to hear first-hand from local people about the impact of this plan and what the new border arrangements will mean for them and the wider region following warnings the new park could cause huge disruption.
From what we have seen so far about the plans for our new border arrangements, they have been badly communicated, risk causing chaos to communities in Kent, and will heap costs and restrictions on businesses. If this ongoing saga is a sign of what is to come over the next few months, then we should all be seriously concerned.
Back in December 2019, we were told repeatedly that Boris Johnson had an “oven-ready deal”. On June 15th, the PM said he saw “no reason why you shouldn’t get that done in July”. Yet with nothing to show, it begs the question: was the oven ever switched on at all?
The recipe for the UK’s future relationship with the EU was published in the form of a political declaration agreed and published in October 2019. It is vital that the promises made in the document are upheld by the Conservatives. While it would not have been the same jobs-friendly deal that a Labour government would have pursued, it includes some very important commitments for businesses and jobs.
In particular, there is the promise: “The economic partnership should through a Free Trade Agreement ensure no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions across all sectors with appropriate and modern accompanying rules of origin, and with ambitious customs arrangements that are in line with the Parties’ objectives and principles above.”
These are crucial commitments for UK industries, and Labour’s engagement with businesses and trade unions has only highlighted their importance in the current challenging climate. The sooner such an agreement is negotiated, the better it will be for businesses and workers. In July 2016, cabinet minister Michael Gove assured the country that “we are in the driving seat now” when it came to negotiations with the EU. But four years later, we are stuck in second gear.
Now we are outside the EU, there is no point in labelling voters by how they voted in a referendum four years ago. We need to pull together as a country and Labour is determined that the UK lifts living standards and tackles the many longstanding issues facing our country including those shirked by successive Conservative governments.
People want to see greater investment in skills, better jobs, an industrial strategy that does not permit the flogging of our assets to the highest overseas bidders, a good life for all with high standards in employment, consumer, environmental and animal welfare rights and a constructive and co-operative approach to our European friends and neighbours.
There are ministers and MPs in the Conservative government who do not share that ambitious approach. They seem determined to bend over backwards for a Trump trade deal while picking pointless fights with Scottish and Welsh governments whose voices should be heard in these negotiations alongside those in England and Northern Ireland.
Despite repeated opportunities to legislate to guarantee high standards in the UK, the Conservatives have resolutely stood against these safeguards. Meanwhile, trade unions tell me the Conservatives are demanding that they sign non-disclosure agreements before any meaningful discussions on overseas trade deals. This government is in no position to command trust.
It is becoming apparent that the government will soon be binding businesses with considerable ‘red tape’ in the form of customs declarations and bureaucracy. This could add between £7bn and £13bn of extra business costs per year through new customs declarations.
The Conservatives need to be honest with the UK’s importing and exporting businesses about how much the government’s approach will cost them and what they intend to do to support them. Any losses of contracts, jobs or lowering of living standards due, and it will be the government that must shoulder the blame.
The Conservatives have had four years to prepare. We are now outside the EU but urgently need a soft landing at our new destination. The landing zone for a negotiated deal with the EU will surely be found in the principles and promises of the political declaration, which both the UK and EU committed to nine months ago. This was the Brexit deal taken to the country – and it is what voters expect to be agreed this year. The government needs to end its tin-eared approach to our future relationship with the EU and negotiate the deal they promised to deliver.