While the country’s attention is elsewhere, Johnson tries to ditch his promises on Brexit

Boris Johnson signs the Withdrawal Agreement 31 Jan 2020 Picture:U.K. Prime Minister / OGL 3 (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/3)

While the country is focused on the coronavirus crisis and its consequences, Johnson and his government are busy trying to rip up all the promises they made to get their Brexit deal through, hoping that they can get away with far-reaching choices that will have huge consequences for the country.

While Brexit formally happened on 31 January, it was a ‘Blindfold Brexit’ – leaving the EU without settling on what will replace the myriad arrangements, laws and programmes that we were hitherto part of. Sorting that out was left for the post-Brexit transition period. During this period – which we are now in – the status quo applies, with Britain still subject to EU rights and obligations. But if there is no agreement by the end of the transition, currently set at the end of the year, then we will have the notorious no-deal Brexit.

No-deal means the sudden ending, without replacement, of all existing arrangements.

  • For trade, it means falling out of the customs union and overnight, under World Trade Organisation rules, having a customs border and tariffs with our main trading partners. This will penalise our exports and disrupt our supply chains, putting countless jobs in jeopardy. It also means dropping out of all the trade deals between the EU and the rest of the world before we secure our own separate deals to replace them.
  • For security, it means ending participation in Europol and the shared police databases that enable us to better police our borders and to cooperate in fighting cross-border criminal gangs and traffickers.
  • And at a purely practical level, it causes havoc for a host of things we take for granted, from the validity of car insurance when travelling abroad, to roaming charges, student exchanges, free hospitalisation when ill on holiday, cross-border child custody judgements, and much else.

To avoid this havoc, we need an agreement. But the talks are not going well. Indeed, they are in crisis.

Two key sticking points are:

  • The government is demanding full access to the EU market without committing to a level playing field in terms of social and employment standards, environment, climate change, fair competition and relevant tax matters; and
  • It wants access to the police databases and European Arrest Warrant, without guaranteeing to uphold the safeguards and protections laid down in the European Convention on Human Rights.

In taking this position, the government is reneging on its previous commitments. The political declaration that accompanied the withdrawal agreement, which was approved by both parliaments, set out what both sides agreed to negotiate for their future relationship. Without that, the withdrawal agreement would not have been ratified. It committed both sides to “robust commitments to ensure a level playing field” and to “uphold the common high standards … in the areas of state aid, competition, social and employment standards, environment, climate change, and relevant tax matters”.

Embed from Getty Images

The author, leader of Labour Party delegation at the European Parliament waves a scarf depicting the European Union and the Union Jack flags during a ceremony of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament at the Europa Building in Brussels, on January 29, 2020

But now, the government is virtually tearing up those commitments. It is also failing to implement the provisions of the already ratified legally binding protocol on Northern Ireland as regards customs checks.

All this is now urgent because the transition period ends in seven months’ time. Few people think it’s possible to agree (and get approval of all the parliaments involved) on such a comprehensive deal by then – even without the delays caused by the Covid-19 crisis.

As a safety mechanism, the withdrawal agreement provides for the possibility of extending the transition period, by either one or two years, through a single joint decision taken no later than 30 June (six months before the cliff edge, so everyone can prepare). To everyone’s astonishment, Johnson has ruled out making such an extension under any circumstances, even after several negotiating sessions were cancelled due to Covid-19. And this despite the fact that a no-deal situation in December would amplify the economic damage already being inflicted by the corona lockdown. 

This is leading many to conclude that Johnson actually doesn’t want a deal. Phil Hogan, the Irish EU trade commissioner, said, “There is no real sign that Britain is approaching trade talks with the European Union with a plan to succeed and it appears set to blame any post-Brexit fallout on the economic shock from COVID-19”.

The neo-liberal right of the Tory party was always opposed to any deal with the EU that keeps Britain aligned with European standards. The very reason they wanted Brexit in the first place was because the EU’s single market has rules to protect consumers, workers and the environment – protections that they want to escape from to have a Trump-style corporate free-for-all deregulated economy. They also want Britain to align economically and strategically with the USA rather than with our European neighbours.

The one thing that previously held them back was the fear that they would be blamed for the economic fallout of a disorderly no-deal Brexit. Now, they reckon their big chance to get away with it is by doing it now, suddenly and brutally, with the costs, the job losses and the fall in living standards hidden among the effects of the coronavirus lockdown.

It’s time to blow the whistle!

Richard Corbett is former MEP for Yorkshire and Humber and former Labour leader in the European Parliament.

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