Tory Brexit is doomed. Cor­byn has a chance to build the Europe he wants John Palmer

Aus­ter­ity is be­ing re­jected across the con­ti­nent. Labour could recom­mit to an EU of growth and jobs

The Guardian - - OPINION -

‘This year? Next year? Some­time? Never?” These lines from the old chil­dren’s rhyme When Will I Marry? could well be ap­plied to the prospects for Bri­tain’s exit from the Euro­pean Union. Po­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties are be­com­ing ever more com­plex and the fi­nal out­come is still un­cer­tain.

The most im­me­di­ate bat­tle fac­ing Theresa May’s gov­ern­ment is se­cur­ing com­pre­hen­sive par­lia­men­tary ap­proval for its “great re­peal bill”, which trans­fers all EU laws and reg­u­la­tions into UK law. Although the House of Com­mons this week gave as­sent to the first stage of this un­prece­dent­edly com­plex and de­tailed leg­is­la­tion it still faces se­ri­ous chal­lenges in the fi­nal stages of the bill’s ap­proval.

Not only have all the op­po­si­tion par­ties sig­nalled their re­jec­tion of key clauses, but lead­ing Con­ser­va­tive MPs have ex­co­ri­ated pro­vi­sions that would al­low the gov­ern­ment to tam­per with ex­ist­ing EU laws with­out ef­fec­tive par­lia­men­tary scru­tiny. Un­less the Tory gov­ern­ment can force the bill through all stages of par­lia­ment in the months ahead, the fi­nal stages of UK with­drawal risk be­ing dan­ger­ously chaotic.

But there are, any­way, grow­ing doubts about whether the ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween the UK and the EU will be fi­nalised when time does run out on 31 March 2019. (Al­low­ing time for all EU states to ap­prove any agree­ment means the ne­go­ti­at­ing door shuts at the end of next year.) This might well have in­spired the re­cent res­ig­na­tion of the for­mer Tory trade min­is­ter Mark Price. It would be un­sur­pris­ing if oth­ers fol­lowed.

Michel Barnier – the chief EU Brexit ne­go­tia­tor – has left his Bri­tish coun­ter­part, David Davis, in no doubt that, un­less suf­fi­cient progress has been made on the first stage of the talks, he will not rec­om­mend to the 27 EU states that ne­go­ti­a­tions be­gin on the sec­ond stage cov­er­ing a fu­ture trade deal.

And if talks on the cru­cial sec­ond stage on fu­ture EU-UK trade re­la­tions do not start un­til early next year, it be­comes dif­fi­cult to see how they could fin­ish be­fore the March 2019 dead­line. Even some of May’s min­is­te­rial col­leagues ad­mit this would risk a po­ten­tially dis­as­trous “cliff edge” exit, leav­ing in­dus­try, busi­ness and fi­nance in chaos if the ne­go­ti­at­ing door fi­nally closes with­out any trade agree­ment.

There is one pos­si­ble way to buy more time. The UK could ask for an ex­ten­sion of the ar­ti­cle 50 grace pe­riod, by re­quest­ing its ex­ten­sion for per­haps an­other year or so. This would be hu­mil­i­at­ing and it would need the unan­i­mous agree­ment of all 27 EU govern­ments. But, con­cerned that the chaos in the UK econ­omy might spread through­out the EU econ­omy, agree­ment on an ex­ten­sion of the ar­ti­cle 50 timetable might be con­ceded.

This could cre­ate an­other hia­tus, how­ever. If the ar­ti­cle 50 phase were to ex­tend to, say, sum­mer 2020, then the start of a sub­se­quent “tran­si­tional phase” – to al­low time for Bri­tish in­dus­try and busi­ness to ad­just to Brexit – would also have to be ex­tended. At present it is as­sumed that this tran­si­tion pe­riod would have to last at least two years af­ter Brexit.

But even this does not take into ac­count the grow­ing pres­sure from Bri­tish busi­ness and fi­nance for a tran­si­tion pe­riod of more than two years. The Con­fed­er­a­tion of Bri­tish In­dus­try has even floated the idea of “an in­def­i­nite tran­si­tion pe­riod”. But any ex­ten­sion of the tran­si­tion could take the UK well past the time when a UK gen­eral elec­tion is due to be held. Dur­ing the tran­si­tion the UK would be sub­ject to all the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of full EU mem­ber­ship, in­clud­ing fi­nan­cial con­tri­bu­tions, but it would no longer have any voice or any vote in EU de­ci­sion-mak­ing.

It is not hard to imag­ine an ex­plo­sive do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal re­ac­tion. The 48% who voted re­main would be out­raged at re­tain­ing all EU obli­ga­tions but los­ing any share in EU de­ci­sion-mak­ing. The old slo­gan “No tax­a­tion with­out rep­re­sen­ta­tion” may well be­come very pop­u­lar. And such a deal (even if agreed by the EU and only tem­po­rary) has al­ready been de­nounced as rank “treach­ery” by the hard right, Euroscep­tic, leavesup­port­ing wing of the Tory party.

Be­fore any of this has come to pass, the prime min­is­ter could yet be forced to re­sign by a mix­ture of in­ter­nal un­rest in the Con­ser­va­tive party and the grow­ing un­pop­u­lar­ity of her gov­ern­ment on a wide range of is­sues well be­yond Brexit. If her de­par­ture is ei­ther trig­gered by or oth­er­wise leads to a vote of no con­fi­dence in the gov­ern­ment, an early gen­eral elec­tion may be un­avoid­able.

An elec­tion would prob­a­bly re­sult in a Labour gov­ern­ment led by Jeremy Cor­byn, opinion poll trends sug­gest. Labour’s pri­or­ity in gov­ern­ment would be to drive a new anti-aus­ter­ity growth and em­ploy­ment strat­egy. Some in the Labour move­ment are al­ready urg­ing Cor­byn to reach out to the rest of the EU with a pol­icy for co­op­er­a­tion and re­form. There are clear signs that the po­lit­i­cal mood in the EU is chang­ing: aus­ter­ity is be­ing re­jected and there is a new em­pha­sis on the need for a Europewide eco­nomic stim­u­lus pro­gramme to boost in­vest­ment re­cov­ery.

Re­cent re­ports that EU govern­ments want a sig­nif­i­cant change in tax strat­egy, de­signed to hit grossly un­der­taxed global cor­po­ra­tions (tax­ing them on turnover, not on eas­ily ma­nip­u­lated profit fig­ures), point in the same di­rec­tion – as do plans to un­veil a strength­ened “pil­lar of so­cial rights”.

For Labour’s anti-aus­ter­ity re­cov­ery strat­egy to suc­ceed, it will be vi­tal that the UK and the rest of the EU march in step with each other, with new poli­cies for sus­tain­able growth, greater so­cial equal­ity and im­proved work­ers’ rights. This, of course, will mean rad­i­cal re­forms both in Bri­tain and through­out the union. This would be a con­struc­tive way to demon­strate that the Euro­pean com­mis­sion president Jean-Claude Juncker’s prophecy in Stras­bourg yes­ter­day – that Bri­tain will “soon re­gret” Brexit – need never come to pass.

It is hard to see a bet­ter way of pur­su­ing this than for a Labour gov­ern­ment to make it clear that it will fight any new elec­tion re­ject­ing the Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment’s chaotic flir­ta­tion with dis­as­ter, and seek to re­tain (or re­cover) EU mem­ber­ship for the UK. How­ever cor­ro­sive the UK’s tryst with Brexit has so far proved, a Labour de­ter­mi­na­tion to re­verse it would be good news for Bri­tain and for the Euro­pean Union as a whole.

The PM could be forced to re­sign. An early gen­eral elec­tion may be in­evitable

Il­lus­tra­tion by An­drzej Krauze

John Palmer is a for­mer Europe edi­tor of the Guardian

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