Keir Starmer’s next challenge after the Covid crisis: Stopping a hard Brexit

Unless the Government changes tact then come January 2021 all the predictions made about a hard Brexit will come into play.

Brexit is away from the headlines but, as at any point in the last three years, the clock is ticking on another deadline. The end of the transition period is a mere 9 months away, the point by which we need to request an extension only 3 months ahead.

In the context of COVID-19 this might seem like small news, an irrelevance, but it matters for our economy and politics, and for our ability to fight and recover from the Coronavirus crisis. 

Even some Conservatives now admit that Brexit going ahead will harm our ability to defeat Covid-19 or protect the population from future pandemics. The Commons Health and Social Care Committee, chaired by former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, argues that Brexit will make it harder to fight future pandemics and reap the benefits of new clinical trials in the EU. The end of the Brexit transition period will end UK access to the new EU clinical trials portal, but continued access would ensure patients have access to health innovations under development.

We are scheduled to leave the early warning and response mechanism (EWRS), a valuable tool for cooperation, and highly relevant during the current coronavirus pandemic. Brexit could mean that we would have to wait longer than the EU to gain access to an eventual Covid-19 vaccine. We have already missed out on the EU’s joint procurement of PPE and ventilators, equipment which could have saved lives. 

The final Brexit deal should ensure that the UK retains membership of any cooperation mechanism related to health, in particular pandemic prevention and response. But the end of the transition period on current plans would not just harm our ability to defeat the virus, it would also do deep harm to our economy just at the point when it could be beginning to recover. It would be economic madness to fence ourselves off from our biggest trading partner and replace that relationship with one-sided deals that are worth 0.2% of our GDP, just when our economy would need every help to recover from the current crisis, yet as things stand the Government is committed to either No Deal, or a thin deal that provides little for the economy or struggling businesses. 

Unless the Government changes tact then come January 2021 all the predictions made about a hard / No Deal Brexit will come into play – a huge loss of GDP, the loss of jobs and businesses, and incredibly hard trading environments for industry and manufacturing. The Government’s plans have become even harsher since the election. Even Johnson’s original version of the Political Declaration envisaged some cooperation on the economy and security issues, but since January he has shifted further away from cooperation towards complete divergence. 

Business groups were arguing that the shift means that the UK economy faces a ‘catastrophe’ at the end of the transition period even before Covid-19 hit. The Government argues that complete divergence from EU rules was ‘the whole point’ of Brexit in the first place, but this ignores both the economic and social costs involved, and the staggeringly changed context we are in because of the virus. Businesses are now pleading with the Government to extend the transition, but are still being rebuffed

As well as trade and health there are hundreds of other areas where agreement is needed, including workers’ rights, environmental protections, food standards, security and police sharing of data, all of which have profound impacts on our lives. Coming out of the European Arrest Warrant, for example, will leave us all less safe as information is no longer shared between forces. The UK could become a safe haven for criminals. Frances O’Grady called Johnson’s deal a ‘licence to rip up workers’ rights’

Our food and goods supply chains have barely coped with COVID-19 – and for now, we still have completely open borders. Once checks are put in place at the end of the transition they will not cope in normal times, nevermind times of crisis like now. The extra checks required for GB-NI and GB-EU trade will cause huge delays at borders, and extra red tape and cost for any exporting / importing business. Had this been in place now the supermarkets would have been even emptier – leaving people at risk. 

What does this mean for Labour and its incoming leadership? It means that we cannot simply leave Brexit in the past or accept that the Government can do as they like. Labour’s responsibility, as always, is to speak and act on behalf of workers, the vulnerable and people who are doing their best to run companies to benefit their employees and communities. 

Brexit has got no better just because the Tories won an election – it is just as bad for people, businesses, industry, jobs & livelihoods as it has ever been. That does not mean that we need to replay the arguments of the last four years. We have formally left the EU, but the kind of Brexit we have must be affected by all that we have learned about health cooperation and the need for open supply chains over the last month. It must mean that enough time is given for the negotiations to discuss security, workers’ rights and the environment, time that is simply not available now. 

The urgency of opposing a hard Brexit has only grown with the arrival of COVID-19. In the short term that means getting behind the demands of business for an extension to the transition period, but longer-term it means opposing a hard Brexit itself. We are a pro-European party, we know that there is no Brexit deal as good for Britain as EU membership. But while EU membership is politically impossible we can nevertheless argue for sensible cooperation to keep our businesses afloat, to keep our NHS staffed and with access to the latest innovations, and for security cooperation to help our police keep us safe. 

During this parliament, our job is to hold the Government to account, and to set out a vision for a better future under a Labour Government. Labour will need an answer to the question of what our relationship with the EU should be. We cannot refuse to answer the question or be seen to face both ways. Politically, we could face the loss of more voters to pro-European parties on one side and the Conservatives on the other. But more importantly, we need an answer to the question of what our vision is of a better Britain that is no longer split along Leave / Remain lines, but which has a sensible, secure and collaborative relationship with our nearest neighbours. Labour’s job is to articulate that vision and to ensure that it is more attractive than the destructive hard Brexit on offer from the Conservatives, destruction which looks all the more pointless and self-defeating with every day that the COVID-19 crisis grows. 

Mike Buckley is the director of Labour for a Public Vote

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