Today – nearly seven months on from the referendum – Theresa May will give a speech on Europe in which aides claim she will set out the government’s plan on Brexit. Here are five key questions to which she must provide answers.
How will the government protect the economy from the uncertainty caused by the prime minister’s own statements?
The mood music over the weekend seemed to signal that May is intending to go for a “hard Brexit” and take Britain out of the single market and customs union. The threat of tariffs, trade barriers and being cut off from our biggest market saw the pound plunge once again as panic spread. If this is, indeed, what the government signals as its intentions, how will May assuage the concerns of exporters, manufacturers and the financial services industry who need to maintain their relationships within the single market? Job losses and reduced GDP are likely outcomes of such a strategy – how will the prime minister manage this? She can’t possibly give every company and industry affected promises of a sweetheart deal like the guarantees we suspect she has offered to Nissan.
If we are being asked to be poorer to control immigration, what will the government’s immigration policy be?
One of the reasons for leaving the single market, according to May, is to end the right of EU citizens to live and work in Britain – whatever the cost to the economy, it seems. No one in government, however, has yet outlined what the new policy will be – a points based system, or work permits – and nor has there been any clarity on the status of EU citizens already here, and UK citizens currently living and working in the rest of the EU. British people are being asked to give up a portion of their economic prosperity. Will they be told what they’re getting in exchange?
Will British citizen’s rights be protected, as May has previously claimed?
Philip Hammond gave an interview to a German newspaper in which he seemed to suggest Britain could become a low tax, low regulation outpost on the edge of Europe, as a way to attract businesses put off by Brexit. May has previously claimed she would protect workers after leaving the EU – but how does this square with the chancellor’s vision of a neo-liberal lala land in which employment, environmental and consumer rights are sacrificed, taxes are slashed and public services suffer?
Is the government prepared to address points raised in the Supreme Court decision?
In the next few days, it is widely expected that the Supreme Court will deliver its verdict on the government’s appeal against the High Court ruling that Parliament must have a say before article 50 is invoked, with even ministers privately conceding it will lose. It is widely assumed that the government is working on minimal efforts to secure parliamentary assent. But the court case raises other questions, such as the role of devolved bodies – will the prime minister set out how the government will ensure proper engagement with the whole country, something that is complicated by current events in Northern Ireland, where the breakdown of power-sharing and fresh elections add further complications.
How long will the current Brexit position hold?
Even if May does give more detail on all of the above, how long before the speech unravels? How soon before it is undermined either by some of her more sensible ministers, if her tone is too UKIP, or by the extremists on her backbenches if she steers a more centrist path? Whether she calls it “soft”, “hard” or “red, white and blue”, the result will almost certainly be chaotic.
This piece was first published on LabourList
What we’ve learnt from the latest EU Leaders’ summit…
1. May’s isolation continues: It’s a depressing sight, and the sign of things to come for Brexit Britain – caught on camera, the prime minister of the United Kingdom arrives at an international summit and is ignored by her colleagues, shuffling around looking for someone, anyone, to talk to. And to compound it, she’s excluded from the end-of-summit Brexit discussions. It’s like going to a party, sitting alone, then being asked to stand outside while everyone else talks about you and decides your future. A leader without influence, isolated, invisible; far from taking back control, the UK government has lost it.
2. May is as clueless as her ministers: Just like her Brexit secretary David Davis, Theresa May still has no real plan on how to deliver Brexit; Davis, appearing before the DExEU select committee this week, reprised his Question and Unanswer act, speaking while revealing next to nothing. Davis once again kicked the plan down the road, saying it will not be published until February. At the earliest. It’s not convincing parliamentarians and it’s clear from the reactions of other leaders at the summit, keen to know a bit more a bit sooner, that the government doesn’t have a plan.
3. The European Parliament bares its teeth: The President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, reiterated to EU leaders the need for MEPs to be more involved in the Brexit process. It follows the parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt’s threat to open up separate negotiations. A majority of MEPs must vote for any exit deal, and the best chance for this to happen is if they feel they’ve been involved in the negotiations. If the European Parliament doesn’t back it, we’d be left with the worst possible result – the hardest of hard Brexits, in which the UK leaves without any kind of deal in place.
4. Post-Brexit trade deals will not just magically appear: The pre-summit revelations from internal government briefings that European politicians have warned a UK-EU trade deal could take “up to ten years” adds to the sense that ministers don’t really know what is going on. It is now six months since the Brexit vote, Britain still has no plan and EU leaders have only just agreed how they’ll talk to each other in negotiations. Whether it’s with the rest of the European Union, America, India, Australia, wherever, the idea peddled by leave campaigners that Britain could waltz out of the EU and strike better and faster is being further exposed as the undeliverable £350m-esque post-truth promise it always was.
5. The world has bigger priorities than Brexit: For the rest of the world, international politics isn’t just about Brexit – Syria and the genocide in Aleppo was the number one priority at the summit, and rightly so. The refugee crisis and the EU’s ongoing response to it was also high on the agenda. And in such unstable times, and with no direction from Theresa May, the patience of our negotiating partners is wearing thin – and that’s bad news if we want to avoid economic turmoil when the two-year negotiations come to an end.
The European Commission today vowed to investigate the flexible working conditions at McDonald’s restaurants throughout the EU, following a successful petition from British trade unions, backed by Labour MEPs.
Glenis Willmott MEP, Labour’s Leader in the European Parliament, said:
“Theresa May says workers’ rights are safe with her and will be safe after Brexit – well, now we will see. We will see if the UK government backs any proposals from the Commission to tackle abusive zero-hour contracts to give workers more financial stability and security, and we will see if they keep any new EU laws after Brexit.
“Labour MEPs have long been pushing for EU action on exploitative zero-hours contracts which prevent people from having any form of financial security. It is completely unfair that some employees don’t know how much they will get from week to week – they don’t have zero rent, they still have to put food on the table for their kids.
“People cannot be expected to put their life on hold on the off-chance they are offered work, which they desperately need. It is deplorable that workers can have their shifts cancelled at the last minute, or even be sent home after turning up for their shift.”
Jude Kirton-Darling MEP, member of the European Parliament petitions committee, added:
“Today we heard the voices of McDonald’s workers from Britain, France and Belgium employed on precarious employment contracts. The Commission has made clear that workers employed on zero-hours contracts should have full employment rights as a result of EU law on part-time workers, and that there is a need to investigate the legality of flexi-jobs under EU law.
“These types of contracts are pernicious. For example, workers’ basic rights are withheld, with no maternity leave, paid holiday or redundancy given. We need to build a Europe-wide picture of precarious employment so we can understand its impact.
“We have proposed an impact study of insecure employment in all EU countries to get a better picture and we will write to McDonald’s to demand an end to these forms of employment in their stores.”
So now we know. Brexit will cost the UK economy almost £60bn over the next five years. Borrowing up. Growth down. Inflation up. Productivity down. And the government still doesn’t have a plan.
Last week’s Autumn Statement laid bare the grim reality of Britain after the vote to leave the EU – a climate of chaos and uncertainty that has been amplified by the government’s inaction, indecision and incompetence.
Foreign companies reluctant to invest in a faltering economy; fewer migrants bringing their skills, talent and industry to Brexit Britain; domestic businesses facing up to the prospect of life outside the single market… if the vote to leave wasn’t bad enough, the government’s mishandling of the aftermath has managed to make things even worse.
Where there is discord, error and doubt, Theresa May and the three Brexiteers have brought not harmony, truth and faith, but division, post-truth and despair.
Last week, following Boris Johnson’s latest tour de farce and Theresa May’s Berlin summit, it was the turn of Brexit secretary David Davis to meet with international colleagues, fix his grin and pretend he knows what he’s talking about, only for them to reveal that he, too, has absolutely no idea what Brexit means.
Davis was in Strasbourg to meet the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, and the leader of the parliament’s biggest political group, Manfred Weber. The result?Fear, farce and confusion.
Weber accused Johnson and Davis of “unbelievable arrogance” and having no idea what leaving the European Union means, calling the foreign secretary’s remarks on Turkish EU membership “unbelievable” and “a provocation”. Davis’s visit, which was surely intended to soothe the burns of Boris’s latest Brussels blunderthon, has somehow succeeded in adding insult to insult.
And so the circus rolls on, with no one in government really having a clue, resulting in our EU partners hardening their stance, making it more difficult for the UK to get the best deal, assuming the prime minister will actually eventually come up with some ideas for negotiation – thus far, in public or private, no plan has emerged.
We are not in a bubble, and this state of paralysis can’t endure indefinitely; as the Autumn Statement showed, Brexit is beginning to bite: £58.7bn of bite – that’s £226m a week. That’s £226m a week that won’t be going to the NHS, or any of our other public services.
Trade with the world, EU and non-EU alike, is set to fall over the next decade. Growth will be 2.4 per cent lower over the next five years. Business investment is set to fall, hitting productivity. The ongoing fall in the value of sterling will hit families’ incomes and add two per cent to prices over the next two years alone. And the cost of increasing capacity in the civil service to deal with Brexit will be £412m.
These aren’t just abstract forecasts, these are people’s jobs, futures and cost of living we’re talking about – the company that doesn’t invest, isn’t able to export its goods and has to lay off staff. This is the reality. And it will be the reality for millions of people unless the government stops dithering, fights to keep us in the single market and reassures the world that we are open for business.