At the meeting of the European Council — the prime ministers or presidents of the EU countries — on 14-15 December, the Tory government hopes to wrap up the preliminaries of Brexit and get agreement to start discussing post-Brexit transitional periods and trade deals with the EU.
As we go to press on 23 November, the Tories are reported to have agreed among themselves to double their “divorce payment” offer to the EU to £40 billion so as to improve their chances.
Big business is telling them that it needs definite plans for after the Tories’ scheduled Brexit date of March 2019, because two years’ time is “tomorrow” in the large-scale economic planning they do. University bosses say they will face “great trauma” if plans are not nailed down in the coming weeks.
One thing is for sure about those plans. Far from Brexit releasing £350 million a week to the Health Service, it is more likely to suck £350 million a week out of public services as a result of adverse trade effects and a decline in the tax take from migrant workers, who pay more into the public budget than they draw out.
Brexit also means loss of the real if limited freedom of movement which exists now for people from continental Europe to come to live in Britain, and British people to go to live elsewhere in Europe.
It means unlinking Britain from the pressures from social levelling-up which operate within and through the EU.
It means a step away from European unity and backwards towards the old trade barriers, border posts, and race-to-the-bottom competitive bidding by countries to attract global capital.
Not that the EU is on a smooth road of progress. As we go to press, negotiations for a new government coalition in Germany have broken down because the FDP won’t accept even the strictest offers from Merkel’s CDU-CSU of new curbs on non-EU migration. France’s very pro-EU president Macron is set on destroying his country’s labour law. “Flexible labour markets” are the EU’s dogma.
Solidarity argues for the labour movement to offer an independent and radical alternative policy — for a workers’ united Europe, a Socialist United States of Europe, a federal Europe of democracy, cooperative continent-wide economic planning, and social levelling-up.
So: a battle for freedom of movement. A battle to stop Brexit (including insistence that no Brexit deal can go through without a vote in Parliament and a referendum on the specific deal). And simultaneously an effort of solidarity with refugees, non-EU migrants, and workers in France, Germany, Greece, Spain, and other EU countries who face austerity drives concerted at EU level.
So far our new left-wing Labour Party lags on this. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell talked about aiming for “another Europe” and a “social Europe” in the run-up to the June 2016 referendum, but since then have allowed their horizons to be limited to a “people’s Brexit”, whatever that means.
Jeremy Corbyn continued to defend freedom of movement in Europe for five months after the June 2016 referendum, but then retreated under pressure from the Labour right (and much of the Labour left). Now Labour is explicitly against defending that freedom. Sadly, a section of the Labour left helped block debate at Labour conference in September this year on motions supporting freedom of movement.
Labour has started saying that it wants a deal giving “the same advantages as” the Single Market and the EU Customs Union, and that it wants Britain to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union transitionally, without ever explaining what deal other than the actual Single Market and Customs Union would give those advantages, or why Britain should not remain in those European frameworks longer than transitionally.
On 20 November Labour whipped its MPs to vote with the Tories against a Labour back-bench amendment in Parliament which would have mandated the Government to stay within the Customs Union.
The New Statesman magazine commented, rightly: “it’s reasonable for Remainers to wonder when, exactly, Labour is going to start taking risks or if the party’s real position is that they can’t really meaningfully shape the outcome so they should steer well clear”.
Europe is not an issue to “steer well clear” from. Capital is global and multinational,whether we like it or not. Nothing can turn back that clock.
The question is whether the labour movement develops a global and international program to match, or retreats into nationalism.