By Mike Phipps
The No Holding Back Group of MPs from northern constituencies – Ian Lavery, Laura Smith and Jon Trickett – spent Christmas putting together a critique of the Brexit deal, which passed the House of Commons yesterday. An Analysis of the UK-EU Trade Agreement is all the more impressive, given that so little of the detail of the agreement was available until the last minute.
Boris Johnson published the UK-EU Trade Deal on 26th December 2020, giving MPs almost no time to read the 1,246-page document before they were asked to vote on it just four days later.
“The Labour leadership has said that it will vote for the Bill which puts the deal into law,” note the authors. “The logic that we should vote for a deal rather than a no-deal end to the transition period is understandable. But the danger is that when the arrangements begin to unravel, we will have left our fingerprints at the scene of the crime.”
Worse, as the leadership focuses almost entirely on the parliamentary tactics and the need to be seen to carry out the voters’ wishes and ‘get Brexit done’, there is a danger that Labour vision’s of the future post-Brexit will not be widely understood.
The No Holding Back analysis critiques the trade deal on a number of fronts. First, it’s a neoliberal blueprint, which hardwires Thatcherite economics into Britain’s permanent relationship with the EU. The Treasury estimate a 4% decline in the economy following a bilateral deal. But the regional impact will vary significantly in one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. “Without immediate, radical and indeed transformative action,” warns the report, “the damage to the economy will fall most heavily upon the economically weaker regions, on key workers and on parts of our already fragile manufacturing base.”
Trade liberalisation is at the heart of the deal. The days when the EU declared that it sought to counterbalance the activities of the free market with a commitment to social cohesion appear to be over.
Worse, the text leaves open the likelihood that many public services will be subject to free market competition rules, which will please the Tories but few others, who are aghast at the devastation that privatisation has wrought in the NHS and other services.
Another tool, which might be at the disposal of the British government in seeking a more cohesive set of social and economic arrangements, is public procurement. In the hands of a radical government, this could be a powerful transformative weapon. Yet the purpose of the deal is almost exclusively to prevent state use of taxpayer funds to achieve national objectives. So much for taking back control.
The authors are also concerned about the way the issue of “rules of origin” could be used to pose a risk to UK manufacturing exports.
Workers’ rights are inadequately protected in the Agreement, safeguarded only in cases “affecting trade or investment”, leaving other areas open to assault. Even here, it is still possible for UK rights to be undermined, as long as they don’t fall below European safety net levels.
What happens if the Agreement is breached? Johnson may boast that he has taken the UK out of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, but this is only because new bodies have been created to oversee the Agreement.
The report concludes that the deal “is a very poor deal for working people, for public services and for our regions and nations. Whilst imposing some economically damaging barriers on trade between the UK and the EU, it enhances the power of big business, continues the process of market dominance over all aspects of our society, and does little to build a more cohesive society. Even the NHS may be under threat in the medium term.”
There is an opportunity for a review of the deal after five years. The authors recommend immediately announcing “that we will seek far reaching changes to the relationship but these would be consistent with respecting the results of the EU referendum.” This would help Labour set out a clear alternative to the path proposed by the Tory government.
As part of this, Labour should demand financial assistance to mitigate against the economic effects of ending the transition period, as well as state aid more generally to ensure that the UK government should have the capacity to direct public investment into rebuilding its productive capacity.
Labour should further “insist that the agreement must allow the UK government to nominate all appropriate public services including health, social services and so on as exempt from the provisions of the competition clauses in the agreement.” It should also seek to transform the overly rigid controls on public procurement so that the UK can achieve a range of social and economic objectives.
Above all, “Labour must make it clear that in the first review of the agreement, we will seek to renegotiate the clauses to drive up protections for our workforce.”
Notwithstanding the deal’s inadequacies, the authors on balance advocated a vote for it. Others took a different view. Three Labour MPs resigned from the Labour front bench in defiance of Keir Starmer’s three line whip on the bill and 36 Labour MPs in total abstained, as well as Jeremy Corbyn and Claudia Webbe, both currently without the whip. One Labour MP voted against: Bell Riberio-Addy joined the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dems and others in opposing the Agreement.
In the end, not a single Tory MP voted against the bill, so the idea that its passage was somehow in doubt and a no-deal scenario might occur without Labour’s support proved false. Whether Labour can mount robust opposition to the adverse impact of the Agreement, having backed it in the lobbies, remains to be seen.
Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocus. His book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.
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