On Tuesday, the deadline for the UK to request an extension to the Brexit transition period will officially pass. With the government clear in its rejection of any move to extend, and neither the Labour Party nor the wider political left having raised the issue clearly, the result is a foregone conclusion: there will be no extension, and the UK will leave the orbit of the EU at the end of December.
The end of the transition period is, like everything in the Brexit process, shrouded in technocratic language, but its ramifications are huge. Forget “Brexit Day”; New Year’s Day 2021 is the moment that Brexit will really start happening. Our foreign trade and the rules that govern our economy – our rights, standards and protections – will start to diverge from continental Europe for the first time.
Unless the UK government negotiates it anew, we will lose access to research schemes, the European Medicines Agency and the European Health Insurance Card Scheme. Doing this in the middle of a pandemic is an objectively terrible policy decision. We will surely look back on the failure of the Labour Party to challenge it as a mistake.
The lack of a delay to this Brexit process could have a profound impact on the kind of country Britain becomes. Ever since the referendum, the Tory Right has been clear about its intentions – to drive down workers’ rights, particularly those of migrant workers, and radically deregulate the economy in terms of environmental protections and consumer standards. There is almost no popular support for this, but with the Boris Johnson government given just a few short months to hammer out a future trading relationship, and the crisis of a pandemic hitting in the middle of it, there will be little public scrutiny over what is being negotiated on our behalf.
For months now, government spokespeople have been playing up the merits of an “Australia-style” arrangement. Australia has no free trade deal with the EU, so this is effectively a euphemism for a no-deal Brexit.
Michel Barnier warned in March that the UK negotiating position was diverging from the deal agreed last year on (among other things) its commitment to issues relating to the European Declaration on Human Rights. Left in the hands of a government led and staffed by the same people as Vote Leave, and rushed over a few short months, the outcome of these negotiations could be the biggest assault on working class people, public services, the NHS, the environment and human rights in our lifetimes.
Of course, Johnson’s big majority means that Labour will not be able to simply block this agenda. But the failure to even attempt to slow it down, to shine more of a light on the process, is an error – and a missed opportunity.
In April, around the time that Labour would have had to have raised the issue seriously, a clear majority of the public backed an extension to the transition, although the numbers have narrowed since. You can’t win much from opposition, but an extension of the Brexit transition period during a global pandemic is exactly the kind of moderate, common-sense demand that could have prevailed, and caused party management problems for Boris Johnson.
The awkward reality of the situation is that, despite having been elected to the Labour leadership by a landslide in part because of his Remainer credentials, Keir Starmer’s attitude to the question of Brexit is eerily reminiscent of the Corbyn leadership. Labour knows that the fighting for an extension is the right thing to do, and could have had a chance of success, but this ultimately comes second to the party political calculation that it cannot be seen to “frustrate” the process in a way that Johnson could exploit at the next election.
Frustrating as this is to watch, the problem is far bigger than the attitude of the Labour leadership or a handful of politicians. The left as a whole has spent many years reluctant, or outright unwilling, to really engage with the Brexit process, regarding it as a technocratic maze and the property of centrist obsessives. But these negotiations – and the agreements – they produce are not going to just be dry and technical documents.
Brexit is, and always has been, a battle for the kind of country Britain will become. It is too late to stop it entirely, but if Labour is to remain attached to political reality then it must develop a strategy to resist, oppose and, eventually, reverse the Brexit juggernaut.