What do we know about Brexit and what should Labour do?

Apologies for a long post. Its that bloomin’ Brexit again! I should state a view from the outset. The starting point is Britain’s place in a world dominated by international corporations and a global financial elite, trade blocs and regional powers. Britain has neither empire, nor commonwealth, nor special relationship with the USA to rely on. It might strike out on an independent socialist path but, given the international context, socialism in one backward country in 1917 probably had rather better prospects. If the present world order falls apart anyway – and it might – Britain would find itself fighting the other cats in the sack as it sinks to the bottom. The inescapable conclusion is that the battle socialists want to fight against capital and for economic democracy should, if possible, be fought in Europe rather than outside.

Having said that, what do we think we know about Brexit?

  • A small majority voted in favour of leaving the EU;
  • ‘Sovereignty’ (democracy within the nation) i.e., politics not the economy, was the key motivator for the leave vote along with immigration, though immigration was often an aspect of the argument about sovereignty;
  • If anything Brexit opinion has hardened so that even remainers say ‘get on with it’. The Lib Dem promise to re-open the question with a referendum didn’t cut any ice with voters;
  • You can’t have the economic benefits of the single market without the political costs of free movement, supremacy of EU law, and contributions to the EU budget unless you get a bespoke deal which lets you have Boris Johnson’s cake and eat it;
  • We are trapped, as we were before the referendum, between the appeal to politics (sovereignty) and economics (the single market);
  • We might buy time by agreeing with the EU a ‘transition’ period e.g., temporary membership of the European Economic Area until a wider, bespoke agreement is reached (or not), but the question of the destination has to be answered.

There will either be a [i] bespoke deal (Labour and the Tories would both like this) that gives the maximum economic benefits with minimal political costs (unlikely), [ii] soft Brexit membership of the single market with all the other conditions of membership that voters rejected, [iii] hard Brexit without a trade agreement and potentially damaging economic consequences. Labour’s first duty would be to spell this out. And, incidentally, expose all the nonsense about ‘not revealing our negotiating hand’. The only people that it is being concealed from is the British public.

Labour wants a ‘soft’, membership-of-the-single-market (jobs-first) Brexit. But, as in the referendum campaign, this reduces the EU question to economics when it was ‘politics wot won it’. They will have to spell out the compromises that would be entailed on free movement, EU law and budget contributions. Compromise in all three areas could win public support but even then, a bespoke deal is unlikely. The simplest form of soft Brexit would be membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) where access to the single market  entails all the main obligations and costs of EU membership with none of the political rights. It would be a ridiculous outcome for an economy the size of the UK to be sharing a peripheral status with Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway on the margins of the continent, carrying the same obligations and significantly less control. You might, at a pinch, defend this if it was a temporary staging post, en route to somewhere else, but not otherwise.

Labour rightly rejects ‘hard Brexit’ but not all forms of soft Brexit are acceptable. What Labour must avoid at all costs is being saddled with responsibility for a soft Brexit that the Tories might now negotiate, running to Labour for shelter from their own eurosceptics.

Above all Labour’s purpose over the next two years should be to pin the responsibility for any deal with Europe on the Tories. If they go for soft Brexit, expose the political costs. If they go for hard Brexit, the economic consequences. If there is a transitional arrangement expose the direction  of travel. Neither Labour nor the public can be certain of anything until the Tories outline their European settlement in two years time. Until then Labour should take no responsibility for what ‘ought’ to be done. The message for the Tories is ‘You got us into this mess, you get us out of it. If you fail, Labour will step in and clear up your mess’.

To try to reopen the question of EU membership now, as the Lib  Dems and Tony Blair did, would be a mistake but two years from now it might well be possible. If it isn’t, and there is no bespoke deal or transitional arrangement in sight, hard Brexit would preferable to ‘soft’ servitude on the margins. Membership of the EU still trumps both.

Meanwhile Labour should set out in a  series of speeches, publications and consultative events the real choices that people are faced with, and try to extend that discussion to Europe through its links with continental socialist parties.

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