After embracing a transition phase in which the UK remains in the Customs Union and the Single Market, is Labour now the party of Soft Brexit? No, says Michael Romberg, retired senior civil servant and a member of the Committee of London4Europe. Cheering a transition phase to Brexit will just facilitate the drive to Hard Brexit. Focussing on transition allows the parties to prevent the electorate knowing what Brexit means until it is too late. Ignore the transition.
It is unfair to say that the Government has not worked out what it wants from Brexit. It has gone all-out for Boris’ have-our-cake-and-eat-it. That is of course an entirely sensible opening position in a negotiation. It is difficult in a public negotiation to communicate both resolve and flexibility when not only your own supporters but also the negotiating partners listen to every word.
The 2016 referendum result was undefined. So everyone has interpreted it as supporting what they wished to do anyway. Theresa May has only two passions in life: controlling immigration; and leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. So she sees the referendum as mandating those as the primary objectives.
The wishful thinking is that the EU will allow us to keep all the benefits of the Single Market, Customs Union, and the close co-operation between neighbours that characterises the EU while dropping key parts of the project. They will not. The British public has not been prepared at all for the inevitable compromises that will have to be made. The slew of recent position papers set out desirable end points – frictionless borders and so on – but without any realistic means of attaining them. We are still in magical thinking territory, just as in the Leave campaign. Salvation by faith alone!
Labour’s proposals for the transition
Keir Starmer’s proposals in the Observer of 27 August 2017 for staying in the Single Market and a customs union for some years after Brexit recognise the only sensible option we have to avoid the cliff edge.
There is no prospect of negotiating both the final Brexit deal and the transition as a step on the way in time to give Governments, businesses and individuals the chance to adjust. Moreover, such an approach would require two sets of adjustments.
Labour’s approach means there might be only one adjustment – though it is easy enough to foresee a further transition period to manage the adjustment to the final state. There would be time to prepare for the big changes later.
Big gaps remain. For example, what about the future rights of EU/UK citizens who exercise freedom of movement during the transition phase. Would they end at the finish of the transition phase or would they last for ever?
Starmer talks of the Single Market and a customs union. So does he mean the Customs Union or is he subscribing to the new trade deals fantasy. The Observer thinks he means the Customs Union. But I believe they have forgotten to allow for the deceptive precision of the lawyerly QC.
But still, it is hard to see how else the transition to Brexit can be made to work without damaging the UK severely. The Government should adopt Labour’s plan for the transition, while making sure that we stay in the Customs Union.
Labour’s plan for final Brexit arrangements
Labour is firmly focussed on the next election. We do not know whether it will happen before Brexit; in 2019 soon after Brexit day and the election of a new Conservative leader; or 2022 after or near the end of the transition period.
The evidence shows that even in Labour Leave constituencies most Labour voters support Remain. But Corbyn has always been opposed to the EU. And full-on socialism – as opposed to Scandinavian social democracy – needs Brexit.
So Labour are – and wish to show themselves as being – in favour of Brexit while not being as aggressive as the Conservatives. They wish to sound as though they might have something to offer Remain voters too. A repeat of the general election 2017 strategy.
Starmer has unveiled Labour’s policy for the full-on Brexit. It is the full Boris: we should have our cake and eat it; we should obtain all the benefits of the single market and customs union for ever; the EU should reform the rules on freedom of movement.
Yes the EU will undoubtedly reform freedom of movement. The EU is always reforming everything. President Macron is keen to change the Posted Workers Directive and is trying to gather support for that. Maybe he will succeed. The Directive has barely featured in the UK’s debate – any changes to it would not be relevant here.
There is no prospect of the EU making changes that will appease Leave voters. Their problem was not unemployed homeless Romanians, nor was it Bulgarians sending Child Benefit money to children at home in Sofia. Those complaints were just the icing on the cake. The real complaint of Leave voters was too many Poles working here. No conceivable reform to freedom of movement will change that. Labour is just posturing.
Why we should ignore the transition
Once we are out we are out. Staying permanently in the single market and customs union when we are just passive rule-takers would be a pointless relationship. Why not stay in the EU if the only thing that changes is that we lose our vote and our voice? The country would still be divided. But the chance of a Remain victory in a referendum in 2022 where voters decide on a humiliating application to rejoin the EU on worse terms than we have is negligible. Once we are out we will be out for decades.
The transition is only the journey. The only thing that matters is the destination. Yes it would be nice to fly there in a private plane. But right now, the North of Iraq is not a good holiday destination.
Of course there needs to be a sensible transition. But if we believe in Remain then we must not let the transition blind us to what is going on. Both main parties – for very different reasons – agree that the UK should leave the EU – and with a hard Brexit that prioritises immigration control.
Labour’s announcement will fool many, just as its 2017 election campaign did. The Observer editorial backs Keir Starmer not just on the Transition but also on the longer term. The paper quite mistakenly now sees Labour as the party of Soft Brexit. But that is to make the mistake that so many Remain voters made in the general election. Labour’s opposition to Theresa May’s Brexit did not mean that they supported Remain or even a soft Brexit. Mine enemy’s enemy need not be my friend.
Moreover, there is the risk that an easy transition will allow the parties to stop thinking and so delay the point at which we know what Brexit means until after Brexit. Keir Starmer’s objection to a referendum on the terms is that the terms will not be known. So we should see Starmer’s proposal as a means of postponing Labour’s divisive internal debates about the nature of Brexit. We therefore risk leaving the EU without knowing how the Irish Border Question will be settled, what our permanent relationships with the Single Market and the Customs Union will be, how we will co-operate.
Look to the essence of the Leave proposals. Prioritising immigration control as both Theresa May and Keir Starmer do means a hard Brexit with enormous damage to the moral standing of our society. We will become a cold unwelcoming place with politics and self-image based on nostalgic fantasies of English exceptionalism. How we get there is not important. Cheering the transition will just facilitate the drive to Hard Brexit. Focussing on transition allows the parties to prevent the electorate knowing what Brexit means until it is too late.
Ignore the transition.