Jeremy Corbyn has defended freedom of movement for workers between the EU and Britain even after the Brexit vote. Sections of the Labour Party machine, and even of the Labour left, are however pushing a different line.
While the Tories were still on their soon-to-be-abandoned plan to compel employers to list non-British workers, the Labour Party press office responded only by complaining that the Tories have not stuck to their 2010 manifesto promise to reduce net immigration to “tens of thousands a year”. (It is currently 336,000, only 0.5% of population, per year). Then newly-appointed shadow Brexit minister Keir Starmer said: “We have to be open to adjustments of the freedom of movement rules”, and that immigration should be reduced. He did, however, say that “the terms on which we are going to negotiate absolutely have to be put to a vote” in Parliament.
The Tory government has ruled out a vote and had Brexit minister David Davis say to parliamentarians that “I can’t tell you in advance” about the negotiating stance. Labour Party conference passed a motion from the TSSA union calling for a parliamentary vote and maybe a referendum on a final deal. In a sad echo of practice in the Blair years, the Party machine then briefed the media that the vote didn’t mean this was Party policy.
At least some people round Corbyn seem happy to give the Tories an easy ride on Brexit, on the pretext of respecting the 23 June referendum vote. The labour movement should fight to conserve freedom of movement, to maximise common cause with workers across Europe, and minimise new barriers between countries. And such are the tensions and wobbles in the ruling classes about Brexit that a strong Labour stance could win real successes.
It is not a matter of undemocratically circumventing a majority. It is reasonable, predictable, obvious that the balance of opinion on an actual Brexit formula will be different from the balance on 23 June, when what “Brexit” meant was vague. The 23 June vote does not oblige Labour to become helpful when the Tories find it a Brexit formula difficult. And if, after a Brexit formula has proved unpopular or unattainable, the 52-48 balance on 23 June swings to a different outcome, there is nothing undemocratic about that.
The tensions and wobbles are not only within Britain. Europe will not stand still while the British government negotiates on Brexit.
German chancellor Angela Merkel has offered the softest tone on possible terms, but Germany goes to the polls in 2017, probably in September, and the right-wing nationalist AfD party is currently running around 15%.
Before that, France will have a presidential election in April-May 2017, where Marine Le Pen of the neo-fascist Front National is likely to do well.
Italy can theoretically go without elections until 2018, but prime minister Matteo Renzi does not have a majority in parliament and his Democratic Party is being nearly outstripped in the polls by the maverick populist Five Star Movement.
Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, which work together in the EU as the “Visegrad Group”, and are anxious about their many citizens working in Britain, have said that they will be “uncompromising” in the Brexit talks. They have threatened to veto an EU-British deal if they don’t like it.
Greece’s prime minister Alexis Tsipras is trying to pull together another subgroup in the EU, organising a “summit of Southern Europe” on 9 September with Cyprus, Malta, Portugal, Spain, France, and Italy.
In short, hardly any EU government will be easy, confident, and relaxed about the negotiations. Many are worried about rising right-wing populist nationalism in their countries. All are anxious about reconsolidating the EU in the wake of economic turmoil and stagnation, impasse on refugees, and popular disaffection. None wants to help demonstrate that quitting the EU is an easy option.
The Tories are in strife. Prime Minister Theresa May’s firm-sounding but empty announcements that “Brexit means Brexit” suggest that she is trying to build cover for a “soft Brexit”, as close to the “Norway option” of European Economic Area membership (effectively, semi-membership of the EU) as she dares go.
Her Tory party conference speech called for “free trade, in goods and services... British companies [to have] the maximum freedom to trade with and operate within the [EU] Single Market”. She has had the Northern Ireland minister declare a will, somehow, to avoid reimposing controls on the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, which is due to become a British-EU border.
When Brexit minister David Davis said on 5 September that it was “improbable” that Britain could stay in the Single Market, May immediately slapped him down, saying that Davis was expressing personal opinion and not government policy.
There is pressure on May from big business for a “soft Brexit”. Worried about anti-immigrant talk from May, and the Tories’ quickly-retracted plan to compel companies to list their non-British employees, CBI chief Carolyn Fairbairn said on 10 October than the Tories were drifting into a “hard Brexit” which “added up to a very negative environment for business”. “The door is being closed, to an extent, on the open economy”. In an open letter to the government, co-signed by other business groups, Fairbairn says: “barrier-free access to the EU’s Single Market is vital to the health of the UK economy, especially to our manufacturing and service sectors. Uninterrupted access for our financial services sector is also a major priority”. The option favoured by some Tories, and listed as a possibility by Davis, of “leaving the EU without any preferential trade arrangement and defaulting to trading by standard World Trade Organisation rules” should be “immediately ruled out under any circumstances”.
May has said that Brexit negotiations will start before March 2017. They then have a fixed two-year span. The CBI says it is probable that the negotiations will not be complete within the two years, and is horrified by the prospect of Brexit then being triggered without a deal. “The Government should therefore secure agreement of a transitional period” in which status quo can continue until the deal has finalised.
Whether the EU will agree to that is another matter. At the Tory conference, a number of ex-ministers came out in open opposition to May, who has a Commons majority of only 16. Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan have joined with former Labour leader Ed Miliband and former Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg to say that there is “no mandate” for leaving the single market and to demand a parliamentary vote on the stance that the government will take into Brexit negotiations.
The fundamental socialist stance should be: reduce borders, not raise them. Fight for free movement. Maximise working-class solidarity across borders and among workers of different origins within the same country.