Peter Mandelson: We musn't let our rights be sacrificed during Brexit trade talks

If Britain cannot remain in the EU, we need to work in close partnership with it to defend the rights of workers, consumers and the environment

September 10, 2017
Mandelson: we must follow the EU's "gold standard" model for trade talks. Photo: PA
Mandelson: we must follow the EU's "gold standard" model for trade talks. Photo: PA

It shows how far Britain remains in the grip of Brexitmania that a modicum of common sense from the Labour Party—that we should continue in Europe’s single market, with its attendant trading rights and social protections, until a new deal falls into place—should be controversial.

Is Labour’s latest stance sensible or not? Yes, if you think the economy and living standards matter. No, if your nationalist feelings are more important to you.

But perhaps the term “Brexitmania” is misplaced. It suggests fervour, when a more accurate description of Britain’s current state of mind is something closer to torpor. Leave voters think we have left already or are relaxed about bearing the costs when we do. Remain voters vainly hope that Theresa May will eventually come to her senses.

Where should those of us who are Brexit sceptics take our argument from here?

One school of thought is that we should just sit back and wait for Brexit to defeat Brexit, given the mess the government is making of it. The alternative view is that it behoves the government’s critics to show how the negotiation could be handled differently and better, giving them moral authority when the negotiation fails.

I think we have to take the second course—without pretending there is anything like a perfect Brexit, or looking as if we are praying for failure. After all, when failure occurs, you can be sure the Brexiters will be busy scapegoating all of us at home and in Brussels.

The public is becoming aware that Brexit is not going as smoothly as expected, a process dogged by complex negotiation in which Britain—surprise, surprise—does not hold all the cards. Instead of frictionless trade we are looking at customs controls and costs. And instead of more money for the NHS we are awaiting a whacking great exit bill.

It is also becoming clear that the new tailored trade deal the government wants will not be on offer from the EU, and what the EU27 are prepared to give will come with strings that the government won’t accept. The same is true for prospective new trade deals with other nations; just ask Japan or India. This was all anticipated during the referendum—except that it was unprovable and nobody was listening anyway.

An important start has been made with Labour’s policy to remain in the single market and customs union for the time being, but no party has really set out in practical terms how best to achieve lasting alternative trade arrangements.

Trade negotiation used to be my job when I was an EU commissioner. Trade deals have come a long way over the last couple of decades when they were largely concerned with eliminating border tariffs and duties.

Of course, trade negotiations still concentrate on market access for exporters, with negotiators seeking preferential terms in overseas markets and assurance that foreign investment will be treated in the same way as domestic. But modern agreements also include important social dimensions. Increasingly, they focus on raising the bar of consumer and environmental protection, or on securing workplace rights and safety. In this way, they try to eliminate a race to the bottom that comes with cut-throat competition between trading nations.

This is what I would call the “gold standard” which is now the basis of all the EU’s mandates in trade negotiation. But there is also the quicker and dirtier type of trade deal in which all that matters is removing barriers to free trade, creating opportunities for business, without the attention to shared goals and common standards.

This reflects an ultra-liberal approach to trade central to the beliefs of those who drove the Brexit agenda in the referendum. Now, they see a chance to turn Britain into an unrestricted, free-market nirvana, supposedly liberated from Europe’s ‘bureaucratic’ constraints and ‘red tape’ but which is, in reality, simply less laissez-faire and more socially concerned.

These Brexit ideologues are not interested in protecting people from globalization—as they pretend to be when it comes to, for example, debates about immigration. Rather, they are interested in exposing people to a more extreme version of it.

“Take back control”, therefore, has more than one meaning. There is the insular, nationalistic one we were confronted with during the referendum campaign, but there is also a progressive one; one that empowers people and makes their lives safer. As the capitalist system operates more and more across borders, so, too, governments and regulators need to work internationally.

The EU still provides the best instruments with which to do this. If Britain cannot remain in the EU, we need to work in close partnership with it, not only to secure our trade but to guarantee the same “gold standard” rules to protect workers’ rights, our environment and the safety of individual citizens.

We need to see more of this vision presented by Labour and other socially concerned people in parliament as they confront the government’s drive towards a hard Brexit and check the EU withdrawal legislation in the months to come.

In due course—events will determine when—more of the public will see the disappointing direction that Brexit is taking and question whether it is what they prefer. Parliament will eventually take a view of this, but, rightly, will not reverse the original referendum result.

That result gave the government the mandate to do what they are doing, though Mrs May's failure to win a parliamentary majority put paid to a specific mandate for the hard Brexit she so loudly advocated. Any future vote would not, as some call it, be a second referendum but a fresh democratic test of the arrangements under which these and future generations must live.

Either way, the Brexit sceptics’ broad approach should be that we do not leave the EU until we know what we are leaving to. This will confront us first in March 2019, at the end of the Article 50 negotiating period, when we will have a rough but imperfect sense of how Brexit is shaping up.

Recall what the Brexit goddess herself has said. Margaret Thatcher, during a Commons debate on the first EEC referendum in 1975, was clear: in the event of Britain voting to leave, she said, “it would be possible to argue that a further referendum should be taken when the revised terms of a free trade area were considered and had been through the House.”