The House of Commons will vote soon on a proposal for Britain to stay in a customs union with the EU after Brexit.
On 18 May, the House of Lords defeated the Government on that issue, voting through a recommendation that ministers take steps to negotiate a new customs union with the EU.
On Monday 23rd, the Government declared: “We will not be staying in the customs union or joining a customs union”. Pro-customs-union Tory MPs may blink, faced with the prospect of the Government being defeated, but it will only take a few Tory rebels to defeat Theresa May’s administration.
The EU’s Customs Union is a common set of tariffs on items imported from outside the Customs Union area. Customs Union membership, or partial-membership, rules out negotiating trade deals with other countries distinct from those the EU may have with those countries. That is the Tory right’s stated reason for opposing Customs Union membership, though in fact their promises of quick and easy trade deals with non-EU states to come with Brexit has proved empty.
Most experts believe that avoiding a “hard” border in Ireland — border posts, checks, etc. — is impossible without either Britain remaining in the Customs Union at least. Unless Northern Ireland is given a special status in the Customs Union, with the rest of Britain outside it — but that would mean a “hard” border in the Irish Sea, and is rejected both by the Tories and their DUP allies.
The Tory government has suggested that hi-tech wizardry could finesse this contradiction, but the EU has comprehensively and officially rejected those Tory suggestions as “magical thinking”.
The EU is asking for an agreed solution on the Irish border by an EU summit on 28-29 June.
Although opinion polls show only a small shift in the Leave-Remain split since the June 2016 referendum, that small shift has been enough to create a small Remain majority.
Surveys also show a 56%-28% majority reckoning that the Government is doing a bad job on Brexit, and a 42%-24% majority believing that Brexit will bring economic harm.
On 15 April Liberal-Democrats and Greens launched a “People’s Vote” campaign for a referendum, before Brexit goes through, on whatever deal the Government comes up. They were supported by pro-EU Tory MP Anna Soubry and Labour right-winger Chuka Umunna.
The leftish campaign Another Europe is Possible commented: “Another Europe has a different perspective to Remainer Tories and others on the right of politics. Our rallying cries are internationalism, solidarity, democracy, social and economic justice, free movement, workers’ rights, environmental protections and human rights.
“But this news is big — because it means that the parliamentary arithmetic for a referendum on the terms of the deal could well be there. In October, Theresa May will put her deal to a vote in parliament. If it falls, the case for a fresh popular vote ought to be overwhelming”.
AEIP said it would step up its activity in the coming weeks, and it is right to do so. The right for minorities to continue to campaign, and to become majorities, is central to democracy. The Tories cannot take the June 2016 vote — based on promises now exploded, like the supposed £350 million a week for the NHS, or the prospect of slick new trade deals around the world — as a mandate for whatever deal they scrape together.
And it is basic in a larger sense that we use every democratic opening or opportunity we can find to fight to retain the freedom of movement for workers between Europe and Britain which currently exists, and to defend the rights of EU-origin people already in Britain.
Since late 2016, the Labour Party has refused to back freedom of movement. Labour Party conference 2017 was pushed and persuaded into not debating the issue. That has to be changed.
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell told the Financial Times (2 March) that Labour’s current position on Europe is “like walking a tightrope”. In truth much of it is like sitting on a fence.
On 11 February he said Labour would not necessarily oppose a second referendum, though he would prefer a general election. On the economic issue, he has said (11 December): “We want to be as close as we possibly can to ensure tariff-free access... as close a relationship with the single market as we can and possibly a customs union... We want to keep all the options on the table and that way we think we can protect the economy...” He has also said that Labour will be “flexible” on free movement.
Solidarity will campaign to stop Brexit, for a second referendum, for free movement, for workers’ solidarity and unity across Europe, and for a workers’ united Europe.