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The government has announced that despite the delays caused by COVID-19 it will refuse to extend the Brexit transition period beyond this year, whatever the consequences. This makes the chances of a no-deal Brexit all the more likely, with Britain's participation in the single market and customs union (and much else) ending overnight, with no replacement measures in place.
Labour cannot change the Government's position on this, any more than it can on most things with them having an 80 seat majority, but, we can change public opinion and we have to say the right thing for the country.
Above all, if this is going to be a disaster, we will need to be able to show that we warned against it. Many economic sectors, the Welsh & Scottish governments, and other opposition parties have all called for an extension. It’s beginning to look odd that we haven’t.
This is not a Leave vs Remain debate. We’ve left, so it’s about securing the best deal possible.
Our narrative should be about Boris boasting again that he can do something by a deadline that he probably won’t in fact manage to do. Just look at some of his recent COVID promises: adequate supplies of PPE, the testing target, the school reopening timeline, the schedule for a workable track-trace App. They all missed their deadlines and now he expects us to believe that he can deliver a post-Brexit deal with the EU by October! (The deal needs to be finalised by October to give time for every EU country’s parliament to ratify the deal.)
But it could also be that Johnson is acting in bad faith, tearing up the Political Declaration (the agreement on future relations with the EU) he signed to get Brexit through and actually aiming for no-deal, so that Britain pivots away from European standards and towards the US style deregulation.
Tory right wingers fear that any deal will keep Britain aligned with the EU’s high workplace rights, consumer protection laws, food safety regulations and environmental targets. The very reason they wanted Brexit was to get rid of all this.
Labour must firmly oppose this. We made the case against no-deal so strongly (and it united the whole party and beyond) last year that we can’t simply abandon it. And in doing so, we need to also say that we don’t support Johnson’s blanket and imprudent refusal of any extension.
Of course, our main focus must be on the content of a deal, and make the case for an agreement with the EU that preserves our ACCESS (unfettered access for our exports to the EU market, access to our supply chains, to the joint medical research programmes, student exchanges, police data bases, etc) and keeps our European STANDARDS (of workplace rights, environmental standards, consumer protection, food, etc). But unless we've also opposed Johnson's refusal to extend the deadline, we will be less credible on wanting a wide ranging deal.
Public opinion is up for that, irrespective of how they voted four years ago. There are growing concerns in agriculture, manufacturing, retail, transport, higher education, the creative sector and others about the potentially devastating consequences for their sector, coming on top of the Coronavirus recession. Keir Starmer knows these issues inside out and is well placed to articulate the widespread public concerns.
By Richard Corbett - Last leader of the UK Labour Party in EU parliament and LME Honorary Vice-President
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