Time is running out for Brexit. According to the chief EU negotiator, Michel Barnier, only one year remains to construct a new and acceptable relationship between the UK and the European Union, since six months will be needed for its ratification by the other 27 member states. Any agreement will have to take into account not only trade, but also security, defence, terrorism, crime and much more.
Our government is slowly becoming aware that divisions and deadlock in the negotiation process cannot be afforded. Hence Theresa May’s proposal for a €20bn payment to the EU for liabilities that UK governments have committed to, and for regular budget contributions during a transitional period of two years after negotiations have concluded, allowing British firms time to adapt to the new and still undefined European model.
The EU negotiators want certain difficult issues settled before discussions on the new model can start. These include the rights of the three million EU citizens living in Britain and the rejection of any hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic (with appropriate oversight of immigration, trade and restrictions –if any – on freedom of movement). The Good Friday Agreement was a triumph of common sense over religious and political tribalism. For the future of both Irelands, it must be sustained.
Discussions on these issues are urgent. The opposition parties should submit their own proposals to all-party committees which in turn would put their conclusions to the government, with a deadline of the year’s end. Then the debate on the long-term relationship can begin, alongside the scrutiny of amendments to the repeal bill in the autumn. As Vince Cable pointed out in his leadership speech at the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth, the involvement and commitment of all the political parties represented in parliament is essential.
Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader, has long regarded the European Economic Community (EEC) as a capitalist conspiracy. His connections have been with left-wing European parties, such as Die Linke in Germany. But I hope he will consider working with parties of the centre and the democratic left, both in the UK and the EU.
Angela Merkel won the German election on 24 September having supported a legal minimum wage of €8.85 an hour for workers over 18. She has supported EU directives on equal pay for men and women, and promoted workers’ rights to consultation on dismissal and on working conditions in all firms with more than 2,000 employees. Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, has consistently argued for EU protection of workers’ rights, which could be at risk from right-wing amendments to the repeal bill.
The UK government needs to understand that on many issues compromise will be essential, if even the timetable as extended by the transition period is to be met. The British public is becoming impatient with the delays and difficulties in the Brexit negotiations. According to the most recent BMG poll for the Independent, UK opinion has shifted significantly since the referendum result of June 2016. That vote showed a narrow majority of 52 per cent in favour of leaving the EU. The latest poll reverses this with 52 per cent now backing Remain.
Apart from delays and cabinet divisions, the British public is also growing aware of the costs of Brexit. Until a brief recent rally in the value of the pound, in the expectation of higher interest rates, sterling had fallen around 15 per cent against the euro since the referendum. Prices have risen for imported food and clothes, and travel abroad. Wages have not increased to match prices, though the relaxation of the austerity pay freeze of 1 per cent may ease the position of public sector workers a little.
The Conservative government plans to introduce harsher restrictions on immigration, but it cannot do that until after the end of the proposed transition period in which EU regulations and directives will continue to apply. Yet already the number of EU citizens applying to live and work in the UK, not least in areas of severe shortage like nursing and care of the elderly, is falling dramatically. The Prime Minister is sensibly trying to protect common projects with the EU in education, the arts, science and technology, but already our EU fellow citizens feel less welcome and less wanted.
The next stage of Brexit negotiations will be decisive in shaping the future of the democratic socialist left in the UK and in Europe. From US president Donald Trump’s risky rejection of the Iranian nuclear deal, to right-wing British nationalists and Russia’s disregard for international law, the world needs the leadership of politicians committed to democracy, social justice and a more equal society.
The Prime Minister’s Florence speech and her Brexit plans, on which so much media attention has been lavished, are no more than a long-delayed recognition of the inevitable. Our government and our Prime Minister still have no idea of what the United Kingdom’s future should be, nor any vision to offer our young people. After Florence, the UK is still lost in a confused and baffled muddle as, ever faster, time runs out.