After the crushing House of Commons defeat for her deal with the European Union (EU), Theresa May has been going through the motions of talking to opposition parties. But this is purely symbolic—and not just because of the absence of Jeremy Corbyn from these discussions.
May made it clear that she’s not prepared to budge from the “red lines” she drew back in November 2016.
The most important of these are that after Brexit Britain would not remain in the European Single Market or a customs union with the EU and that free movement for European citizens would end.
But these exclusions mean the remaining EU 27 won’t offer May a deal very different from the one they signed up to in November. “She’s boxed in by her red lines, I don’t understand how a new outcome can come out of this process,” said Green MP Caroline Lucas after meeting May.
May is still making a play for the support of the Tory right and the Loyalist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). This makes a certain kind of crude sense, since it was DUP votes that saved her in last week’s no confidence debate initiated by Corbyn.
But it’s exactly this group that vehemently rejects the backstop the EU insisted on including in the withdrawal treaty. This would keep the north of Ireland in the EU customs union if this was the only way of keeping the border with the south open. This is anathema to the DUP since this would give the Six Counties a different status from the rest of the United Kingdom.
The backstop is justified as essential to maintaining the 1998 peace agreement that ended the war between the Irish Republican Army and the British state. But there are other ways of keeping the border open. Britain and Ireland have belonged to a Common Travel Area since the south won Home Rule in 1922.
This was reinforced by a 1965 free-trade agreement. This arrangement can’t be restored because, as Financial Times columnist Martin Sandbu says, “The EU is clear that it will not give up control of its external border.”
So the backstop is about maintaining the EU as an imperial and expansionist entity that puts increasing resources towards policing its borders.
There is a simpler way of keeping the border open, which is to hold an all-Ireland referendum on abolishing it altogether by creating a united 32-county republic.
Corbyn has been attacked for having unrealistic red lines, summarised in his speech in Hastings last week as “our alternative plan based around a permanent customs union with a British say in future trade deals; a strong single market relationship; and a guarantee at least to keep pace with EU rights at work, environmental protections, and consumer standards.”
The first proposal isn’t absurd—Switzerland currently has access to the Single Market but can make its own trade deals—though the European Commission is, typically, trying to scrap this.
The problem with the plan is the price the EU might exact, in particular by imposing controls designed to block the alternative economic policies Corbyn wants to pursue.
But he has some cards in his hand. He followed May in arguing that Brexit means ending free movement for European workers. This was a disastrous mistake, for principled reasons. Ending free movement threatens the rights of over three million European citizens living in Britain and thereby divides and weakens the entire working class. It also concedes the lie that migration is a “problem”.
But it was also a mistake strategically. If Corbyn went back to his previous support for free movement, he would also be extending a hand to left wing Remainers. Many are rightly indignant about the plight of EU citizens in Britain.
Supporting free movement would also offer a different image of a Labour Britain from May’s mean-spirited Toryism. It might actually improve Britain’s bargaining position with the EU, which has used the end of free movement to justify ruling out various options.
Such a shift in Labour policy could have a huge impact. May’s impasse can still lead to a general election that puts Corbyn in the driving seat.