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The Tories’ Brexit carry-on—a guide to the EU Withdrawal Bill

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Issue 2581
The Tories’ Brexit carry-on starring Theresa May

What’s going on?

The government is trying to push its European Union (EU) Withdrawal Bill through parliament. MPs have submitted hundreds of amendments on everything from animal welfare to Northern Ireland.

Some Tory MPs have already voted with the opposition, and the government risks losing substantive votes.

The bill is so contested partly because it is so broad. It will essentially establish in detail what post-Brexit Britain will look like.

The bill will replace four decades of European rules and references to European institutions in British law. It would come into force on the day Britain leaves the EU, tearing up swathes of the statute book in one fell swoop.

But it’s also a lightning rod for every ongoing row about Brexit. Theresa May has tried to attach a firm deadline for Brexit—11pm, 29 March 2019.

This is intended to show EU negotiators that Britain’s government is prepared to walk away if it doesn’t get the deal it wants from the EU.

It’s also a signal to Leave voters that the Tories can be trusted to see Brexit through—and to pro-EU MPs that they need to get in line.

What’s it to do with Henry VIII?

The bill would let the government rewrite chunks of legislation without consulting parliament. This severely undermines the limited democratic accountability that parliament provides.

It’s been called the Henry VIII powers after the 1539 Proclamation Act that allowed the king to rule largely by decree.

The government argues that this is simply a practical necessity, because the legislative changes are too complex to put before parliament in full.

There are currently 12,000 EU regulations in force in Britain, 7,900 statutory instruments implementing EU legislation and 186 acts influenced by the EU.

There are also more than 80,000 EU agreements, treaties, court rulings and other documents.

All need changing.

The bill was originally to be called the Great Repeal Bill. The plan was to copy all the EU rules into British law for future parliaments to keep or change as they saw fit.

But many of these rules won’t make sense without the treaties or EU institutions they refer to. So they have to be rewritten.

The EU is no friend of working class people.

But like all neoliberal organisations it has some regulations that promise to protect things such as refugees’ rights or workplace safety.

Contrary to Theresa May’s promise last year, the Henry VIII powers mean that the Tories could sabotage these regulations.

Why are the Tories split?

The Tories are straining to put on a show of unity, with cabinet ministers last week insisting they welcomed MPs’ criticisms of the bill.

But tempers in parliament ran high. Former attorney general Dominic Grieve called May’s Brexit deadline “mad”.

Backbench Brexiteer Bernard Jenkins said it “rumbles those who have not really accepted that we’re leaving the European Union”. Former business secretary Anna Soubry called him a “disgrace”.

Brexit is the defining issue for May’s government, and some Tories want that government to fail.

Many are seething over May’s election debacle, the failure of austerity to relaunch the economy or from the wounds of previous faction fights.

But there’s also a real obstacle to the Tories uniting over Brexit. Trying to stay in office pulls them in two opposite directions.

They have to show that they can rule in the interest of business—which wants as little change from the EU status quo as possible. And they also seek to win votes and divide people by whipping up racism.

This quandary weakens them—and should be an opportunity for the left to go on the offensive.

What do bosses want, and should we care?

Most of big business in Britain opposed Brexit and now wants to limit its effects. Bosses don’t want to let the small matter of democracy get in the way of making profit.

Many businesses operate on a transnational scale. They benefit from the EU ensuring they don’t have to pay border tariffs or juggle different sets of regulations in different countries.

A no-deal Brexit would see the return of tariffs—taxes on goods crossing borders. Some bosses are scaremongering about the effect this would have, not always convincingly.

Car manufacturers say that they couldn’t adapt to a no-deal Brexit—but then claim they could adapt to pulling their firms out of Britain.

Their whining is a bid to get some free public money, like Nissan did last year.

The financial sector in the City of London is lobbying for its own special trade deal with the EU. It fears losing out to other European stock markets.

But the biggest prize for the bosses would be keeping the EU single market in some form.

It’s a set of rules that uphold Europe-wide capitalist competition by banning anything that could impede it.

The European single market has been used to thwart trade unions’ attempts to uphold collective pay bargaining, and to enforce a wave of cuts, privatisation and deregulation.

Many union leaders have been quick to echo the bosses’ line that losing the single market would mean losing jobs in Britain.

They should know better. This has always been bosses’ first response to any policy that restricts their profiteering, from banning child labour to bringing in a minimum wage.

But workers and bosses do not have a common interest. Workers could benefit from leaving the single market.

What’s Labour’s position?

Labour is as split over Brexit as the Tories. Its leadership has tried to chart a course that doesn’t block Brexit now but leaves the door open to doing so in future.

But this is under attack from both sides. A minority of Labour MPs campaigned for Brexit while a much larger number want to limit it as much as possible.

Some 19 MPs defied the Labour whip last week to vote against repealing the 1972 European Communities Act, for example.

Rightly, Labour firmly opposes the Henry VIII powers.

Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer says it will also oppose the “gimmick” of a deadline for Brexit.

This fits with Labour’s emphasis on making sure there’s a “good” deal with the EU—and not planning for what happens when the EU refuses.

So does shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s opposition to putting money aside to cope with a no-deal Brexit.

But Labour’s idea of what constitutes a good deal is wrong on both of the two biggest issues.

It wants to stay in the bosses’ neoliberal single market but ditch its one positive aspect, freedom of movement for EU citizens.

What does it mean for migrants?

The bill doesn’t deal with immigration law explicitly. But Britain’s immigration law is tied up in EU rules, so much of it would have to be rewritten.

It could stay substantially the same. Or it could be changed to give more rights to migrants from outside the EU, something the EU cruelly restricts.

But the Tories have made clear that they aim to restrict the rights of migrants from EU countries, and the bill helps them do that.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants campaign has warned that immigration rules could be “unilaterally modified” to suit a new trade deal. Or the Henry VIII powers could be used to undermine migrants’ rights.

Both the Tories and Labour plan to end the free movement of workers from EU countries.

Bosses rely on EU workers so the Tories have to be careful of slashing their numbers. But they can impose harsh laws that make migrants’ lives harder.

Claims that this would protect conditions for the rest of the working class in Britain are cynical lies.

If bosses get away with attacks on some workers, they will be more confident to go after others.

Most unions rightly agree on defending the rights of EU migrants already in Britain. It’s also TUC policy to defend free movement.

Labour should use debates about the bill to make that happen.

Is it a chance to stop Brexit?

Some of the debate is about creating the possibility to stop Brexit. For example, any eventual deal with the EU could be made subject to a second referendum or have conditions imposed on it.

Some feel that staying in the EU would hold back Tory attacks and put anti-migrant racists on the back foot.

But the reasons to leave the EU are as strong now as they were last year. The EU is a neoliberal bosses’ club, an undemocratic bully—and an imperialist power bloc.

That’s why the bosses overwhelmingly back it—and why the vote to leave sent shockwaves through the establishment.

Just last week the EU announced a new pact to increase military spending and launch joint military operations abroad.

Meanwhile United Nations human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein denounced as “inhuman” the EU’s programme of returning refugees to “horrific” prisons in Libya.

Propping up the rotten EU is a dead end. But the Tories must not be given a free hand on deciding what form Brexit takes.

They should be fought on every issue, from safety regulations to migrants’ rights.

However ordinary people voted in the EU referendum, we now need to unite and fight for a workers’ Brexit.

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