Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2689

Brexit—is it all over?

This article is over 4 years, 4 months old
As Britain leaves the European Union, Sophie Squire and Sarah Bates look at the problems that lie ahead for the Tories, big business and Labour
Issue 2689
The problems are far from over for the Tories

Is Brexit done?

Britain will formally leave the European Union (EU) this week. It will be a landmark moment in a process that has caused years of chaos for the political establishment.

Under Boris Johnson’s deal a temporary “transition period” will run to the end of the year. It will keep EU rules that ban state aid, wholesale renationalisation and public ownership.

During this period Britain stays in the EU’s single market and customs union, but gives up decision-making powers and seats on institutional bodies.

Although Johnson promised to “get Brexit done,” there is still the tricky matter of the future Free Trade Agreement to negotiate.

He said this would “likely” be finished by the end of the year. Completion of the Free Trade Agreement in 2020 is part of Johnson’s withdrawal agreement.

But negotiations don’t start until February. And after its election victory, a bullish Tory party may be less willing to make concessions to the EU.

Chancellor Sajid Javid told the Financial Times newspaper, “We will not be in the single market and we will not be in the customs union by the end of the year.”

The Tories, and Johnson in particular, have spent years promising that Brexit is just around the corner. The reality has proved more difficult.

Last year Johnson infamously said he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than to have not left the EU by the end of October.

The EU could continue to run down the clock on negotiations while pressure on the Tories deepens.

In the autumn the prospect of a “no deal” Brexit could resurface—which would alarm big business.

A huge question mark also still hangs over trade with Northern Ireland.

Johnson has insisted there will be no physical checks on the movement of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland—but the EU is unlikely to accept this.

What is the EU position?

EU leaders expressed regret and shock at the Leave vote in June 2016—but said the union “is the framework for our common political future”.

The EU didn’t want Britain to leave—but urged it to begin the process “as soon as possible” after the referendum.

Brexit threatens EU dominance as a capitalist bloc in competition with the US and China. In the longer term it could encourage other member states to leave.

The process has created uncertainty for bosses and governments across Europe. After four years of delays and missed deadlines, the EU will be keen to finish it off.

And unless a mutually-beneficial trade deal is agreed, Brexit could pit the bosses of the EU and Britain even more sharply against each other.

Last week German chancellor Angela Merkel described Johnson’s election victory as a “competitor at our door”.

Johnson wants to make it as easy as possible for British businesses to trade with economies outside the EU.

Ultimately, he hopes Britain can do a deal with the US and find a way to compete with China. And he hopes to strike a trade deal with Japan before the end of the year.

The EU’s Department for Exiting Europe said Britain could become a “Singapore-on-Thames”.

It warned in a leaked document that Britain could adopt a model of deregulation, lower taxes and rates of public spending.

The EU wants to keep Britain politically and economically close, and avoid the high tariffs and uncertainty for bosses of a dramatic break.

But Johnson is keen to push deregulation, which would allow bosses to escape some EU restrictions on business.

The EU doesn’t protect ordinary people’s rights.

Even if it did, Britain could dodge agreements it didn’t want to sign up to.

For instance, Britain opted out of the EU Working Time Directive, which limits workers’ hours and protects annual leave allowance.

EU membership hasn’t stopped poverty soaring in Britain, or workers’ wages being slashed.

And despite formal regulations surrounding environmental matters, the EU is not a mechanism for fighting climate catastrophe.

The EU initiated a carbon emissions trade scheme.

This allows EU member states to buy their ability to pump out emissions and offload their pollution onto poorer parts of the world.

The EU is firmly on the side of the bosses.

What is Labour saying now?

Labour backed Remain, with a small minority of its MPs campaigning to Leave. Since then it has fluctuated over whether to back a second referendum—and whether to campaign for Remain.

High-profile MPs—including shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer—pushed for a second referendum. But none of the leadership candidates have put a clear position on whether they back Brexit.

At Labour’s conference last September, delegates voted to back Corbyn and reject a motion to support Remaining in the EU in all circumstances.

But the party did back a vote on any Brexit deal. This was a major change from its 2017 position of respecting the referendum result and seeking a Brexit that could benefit working class people.

During the general election campaign, Labour said it wanted to negotiate a Brexit deal first then “let the people have the final say”.

This would amount to a deeply divisive second referendum.

Voters deserted Labour in the general election. It lost 60 seats—all but eight in areas that had backed Leave.

Some who wanted to “get Brexit done” switched their votes to parties they felt would respect the referendum result. A poll by Lord Ashcroft showed that more than a quarter of Leave voters who voted for Labour in 2017 switched to the Tories or the Brexit Party.

Others stayed at home.

Labour’s problem wasn’t that it backed a second referendum too late. It was that it lined up with sections of Tories and Lib Dems to ignore the wishes of millions of ordinary people.

What does big business think about Brexit?

The Leave vote was a blow for big business and the ruling elite. They have tried to reverse it. Business owners enthusiastically backed the call for a People’s Vote after the referendum because the EU is pro-business.

An EU founding treaty “prohibited” restrictions on bosses’ right to make profits.

It also blocks measures that could threaten the profits of the privateers, such as wholesale renationalisation of industries.

Remaining in the EU’s single market makes it easier for the movement of goods, capital and people within EU borders.

Bosses overwhelmingly backed Remain because the EU is good for their profits. But some, driven by a mixture of nationalism and vulnerability to international competition, support Brexit.

A Tory Brexit will benefit some sections of capital. But overwhelmingly big business has not been happy with Johnson’s Brexit plans.

The Tories have been the party of the ruling elite for over a century.

The continuing rift between the party and sections of big business will only cause more trouble for the Tories in the future.

Was the Leave vote reactionary?

Some left wing Remainers say the Leave vote marked a swing to the right.

But for many voters, the referendum was an opportunity to be seen and heard—and to defy the Remain option that most of the establishment supported.

Remain had the support of the leaders of all the major political parties and almost all bosses’ organisations and international finance bodies.

So why did 52 percent of people defy the increasingly drastic pleas from these groups to stay inside the EU?

Some Leave voters accepted racist myths and scapegoated migrants for the problems in society.

The official Leave EU campaign promised that Brexit would mean tighter border controls.

But it’s not true that every racist voted Leave. David Cameron, an ardent Remainer, imposed many racist laws. Theresa May, one of the architects of the “hostile environment,” voted Remain.

The official Remain campaign, Stronger Together in Europe, warned that Brexit could mean “double the levels of immigrations” and “potentially making illegal immigration more difficult to control”.

Many people voted Leave because they saw the EU as undemocratic and as an expression of big business. They were right to do so.

Writing off over 17 million Leave voters off as racist ignores the strong class element of the vote. Poorer people were more likely to vote to Leave. Many were driven by anger at years of austerity, inequality and poverty.

Sir Richard Lambert, former Financial Times newspaper editor, said at the time that the vote “represents in part the frustration of those who have not benefited from economic growth in recent decades.”

And Jeremy Corbyn said the result showed that people feel “shut out of a political and economic system that has let them down”.

The Leave vote was strong in areas that have been badly hit by poverty, declining wages, collapsing public services and austerity.

What should we do?

Part of the Brexit process will involve replacing EU rules and writing new Britain-specific legislation.

Brexit on Tory terms undoubtedly presents an opportunity for a vicious Johnson-led government to unleash a raft of attacks. And bosses will blame Brexit for cuts to jobs and conditions.

They can be pushed back. There are important issues for socialists to fight over, such as the rights of EU nationals and the new immigration bill.

Leaving the EU doesn’t automatically mean these rights will get worse.

Equality legislation, equal pay and employment rights were begrudgingly rolled out because of mass struggle and public pressure, not because of the benevolence of Brussels.

And critically, Brexit presents opportunities for the left, not just the right. It’s an opportunity to fight for a huge programme of renationalisation and state aid that EU rules were designed to stop.

Brexit has unleashed four years of crisis on British politicians, bosses and bankers.

Their divisions give us more chance of stopping Tory assaults—and of challenging the neoliberalism and austerity that dominates British politics.

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance