The draft deal between the UK and EU already appears doomed. Attacked from all sides it will almost certainly fail to win the support of the British Parliament. As a result Britain is heading into the most serious peacetime crisis in its modern history.
The Irish question has seen the UK government seek to square two contradictory demands: the desire to leave the EU’s regulatory and customs orbit, while maintaining an open border, without infrastructure, and so on, between the north and south of Ireland. Reading the draft treaty in combination with the ‘future relationship’ declaration makes it clear that the Prime Minister is seeking to solve this riddle by keeping the UK in a very close connection with the European single market.
In the crisis this has created in Theresa May’s premiership one surprising aspect of the deal has been overlooked: the EU have actually gone a long way to satisfy the demands of the British side.
Although not legally binding, the declaration on a future relationship is a document that the EU can be politically held to in the future. Those concessions the EU makes in it cannot just be dismissed out of hand. By strongly implying they would work towards a customs and single market relationship that dropped the free movement of people, in favour of a system of ‘labour mobility’, the proposal looks an awful lot like the kind of ‘cherry picking’ that the EU has previously been keen to rule out.
The British politics of this makes a lot of sense. Reactionary anti-immigration arguments were a critical part of how the Leave campaign won. May is seeking to satisfy these demands. But for many Tory politicians Brexit was a neoliberal project of deregulation, as well as an anti-migrant, nationalist one. Most Leave voters either do not care about, or are opposed to, the kind of ‘Chlorine Chicken’ trade deals that can be used as a vehicle for this. For pro-Brexit MPs, however, extricating the UK from the EU’s regulatory and customs orbit has become a fundamental principle to be defended whatever the cost.
At the European level the draft deal has two big implications. First, the dominant reaction in European capitals will be that they have, not for the first time, gone out of their way to satisfy British exceptionalism. And, once again, the British reaction has been, “it’s not good enough”. This means a serious international, not only domestic, political crisis lies ahead. Second, if Britain does leave the EU, it opens up the possibility of more opposition to a final deal, particularly in the European Parliament. Already there are signs that both France and Spain are unhappy with some of the concessions made, and are countering with demands over fishing rights and Gibraltar.
For the Labour Party and the left, the draft agreement poses major questions. It gives a clear indication of what Labour could reasonably expect to negotiate. A permanent customs union, a close relationship with the single market, and an end to free movement for UK and EU citizens (a Labour manifesto commitment that many of its own members and unions strongly object to) are now reasonably tangible goals.
The soul searching that must now happen in the party leadership will need to address whether this would be a genuinely desirable outcome given its wider political goals.
Although sometimes accused of adopting a Lexit (‘Left Brexit’) position, Labour’s policy is very far from this. Lexit has been aptly described as a ‘managed hard Brexit’, which involved leaving the customs and regulatory framework of the EU entirely. Any kind of ‘soft Brexit’ makes zero sense from a Lexit perspective as this would require accepting a large majority of EU regulations. Aware of the damage such a hard Brexit would do to British industry, and the opposition to it among party members and unions, Labour has studiously avoided this perspective.
Consequently, Labour finds itself in the curious position of seeking a deal not dissimilar to the one that May has negotiated despite the party having radically different political goals in general. Indeed, whereas most social democratic parties in Europe support the status quo, Labour under its current leadership obviously does not.
They seek fundamental change in the global economic order. And this creates a problem in relation to their current policy. A UK-EU deal of the kind envisaged in the draft would be an effective means of protecting the status quo. But as a vehicle for change it has little to commend to it.
Fundamental to the agreement is a loss of substantive sovereignty. The UK would have to align with European regulations and customs rules it no longer had any real say over, losing its representation in all of the various European institutions.
If the party had no intention of changing this framework, then the current deal would work. But given Labour does not accept the status quo there is little warrant for seeking such a deal. Consider, for example, the formulations on state aid included in the draft. Labour are concerned the current EU rules could undermine its plans for an active industrial strategy. Although the criticism is not always consistent – Labour are opposed, for example, to the kind of ‘corporate welfare’ that state aid rules can provide protection from – there is an undoubted need to push back against, and reform, the more neoliberal elements of this framework. Labour faces the difficulty that the scope for doing this within their Brexit policy is limited. Ultimately, maintaining a close trading relationship requires accepting EU rules. To change these rules without disrupting the trading relationship requires being a member of the EU.
There is a further issue raised here too. Why would Labour want a Britain-specific opt out from the EU rules? If the state aid framework needs reform, which it surely does, then this needs to happen across the continent, not just in Britain. Similarly, Labour’s other major negotiating pledge, to end the system of free movement, implies it is still not thinking about its transformative agenda in sufficiently internationalist terms. After all, citizen rights need to be strengthened, not harshly curtailed, across Europe.
The commitment to ending free movement with Europe remains one of the most disappointing of the 2017 manifesto. All citizens – migrants and non-migrants alike – lose out when the rights of one group is so badly curtailed. We should be exploring ways to level up these freedoms – not accepting increasing immigration control.
British politics is paralysed by this extraordinary crisis. Bold leadership is required to set a different course. This means Labour must now discover its conscience.
An alternative perspective is perfectly possible, but requires political courage and conviction. The best deal on the table remains membership of the EU. Not because we accept the status quo, but because it provides the only substantive means to deliver the change we need. In the huge crisis that lies ahead this outcome is no more or less likely than any other. But it is certainly the most desirable for the radical left.
Luke Cooper is a Visiting Fellow on the Europe’s Futures programme at the Institute for Human Sciences (Vienna), a Senior Lecturer in International Politics at Anglia Ruskin University and a convenor of the Another Europe Is Possible campaign.