Labour should commit to opposing Brexit if no agreement with the EU is reachedby Oliver Kamm / October 12, 2017 / Leave a comment
Theresa May provoked justified derision this week when she repeatedly refused to answer an interviewer’s question on whether she would vote for Brexit if a referendum were held now. A serious opposition party would have discomforted her by pressing the question. Labour cannot do this, however, because the prime minister has the obvious retort available of asking Jeremy Corbyn the same question. The answer is obviously that he would, in defiance of the views of most Labour voters and particularly of young voters.
A mountain of evidence points to what almost the entire economics profession predicted would happen in the event of a Brexit vote. Britain is lagging its EU partners and other advanced industrial economies. Real wages are falling. Business investment is on hold, pending an outcome to Brexit negotiations. By constraining flows of goods, services, investment and labour, Brexit will damage Britain’s economy in the long term just as the threat of it is already doing now. To this historic assault on workers’ living standards, Labour’s response is incoherence.
The confusion was compounded this week when Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, said that “no deal is the worst of all situations.” Well, of course. So does that mean Labour will oppose Brexit if no deal is reached between May’s feeble government and the EU27? Who can say? The answer ought to be yes but Labour prefers to pretend that it knows the secret to making a success of Brexit.
It doesn’t. There is no “successful” Brexit on offer. There are only more or less effective ways of containing the damage to Britain’s economy, standards of living and diplomatic weight. The most successful ways require Britain to remain within the European single market and the customs union. For that to happen requires that Britain pay costs and accept constraints on its sovereignty, notably on freedom of movement. If it doesn’t wish to pay those costs, then it should seek as close and deep a free trade agreement as possible with the EU, for which it will also have to pay costs—especially because the principal obstacles to trade are not tariffs and customs duties but non-tariff barriers like rules of origin. And if Britain crashes out of the EU with no deal in place, then it will be in a very bad position indeed. Relying on World Trade Organisation rules takes no account of the dominance of services in Britain’s economy, in which WTO liberalisation has made scant progress.
“There is no successful Brexit on offer—there are only more or less effective ways of containing the damage”
Yet “no deal,” which Starmer rightly says is the worst outcome, is the default position in negotiations. It’s what will happen if nothing happens. And nothing is what appears to be on offer. As Michel Barnier, the EU negotiator, briskly said today, talks are at deadlock. That’s not his fault: it’s what you’d expect of a British Conservative government that has no plan for what it seeks, no conception of how to get there, and no understanding of the role of trade-offs in economic policy. There’s no point in lauding “control”—as in control of trade policy and national borders—unless you’re willing to acknowledge what you thereby give up. In Britain’s case, it means giving up the gains of economic integration and diplomatic solidarity. Britain will be much the poorer for it, materially, culturally and in global influence.
This is what a party of the left ought to understand and openly state. The EU is a rational means of achieving collective goals like workers’ rights, safety standards and environmental protection. The government’s schemes of exiting the single market and the customs union were not put in the referendum and didn’t receive public support in the general election. Labour should say straight that it will oppose any such outcome and demand a referendum on any such terms. Anything less would be a betrayal of its constituency and the national interest.