Brexit & Europe. Photo: pikist/public domain Brexit & Europe. Photo: pikist/public domain

Whatever happens in the next day, the Tories will not deliver the Brexit that people voted for, argues Shabbir Lakha

The clock ticks away as we enter the final 24 hours before the self-imposed deadline between Britain and the EU to agree a post-Brexit trade deal. The all-too-familiar situation of having nothing sorted hours before a deadline has now been repeated so many times in the last two years it’s almost a cliché. Students who leave their essay to the night before it’s due can stop beating themselves up – after all, it seems to be the modus operandi of those running the country.

It was clear a year ago that Boris Johnson’s empty “Get Brexit Done” and “oven-ready” Brexit deal slogans were little more than hot air. As many said at the time, the idea that Johnson’s last-minute deal with the EU would lead easily to a trade deal during the year-long transition period was always far-fetched. And that was before Covid.

But part of the reason there was any credence to Johnson’s claims was thanks to the pro-Remain campaign incessantly obsessing that Johnson was trying to sneak in a no-deal in 2019. Labour’s opposition was hamstrung by the Remain-at-all-costs brigade, and failed to back the initial calls for a general election, despite the fact it had been calling for since June 2017. So when Johnson did in fact pull a deal out of the hat, he wasn’t the one with egg on his face.

Even as the clock runs down once more, we should avoid the trap of calling the outcome before we can see the whole picture. This level of brinkmanship in EU negotiations has a precedent, and even if nothing is agreed by Sunday, it doesn’t mean something won’t be done later in the week, whatever both sides are saying about this weekend being the endgame.

That being said, it is hard to see how the two sides will be able to reach an agreement by Sunday – and even if they somehow do, it will be a bad deal.

Neither a deal nor no deal under the Tories are going to be good, as both will be used to attempt a turbo charging of capitalism via deregulation. In Tory hands, the removal of the EU’s neoliberal shackles will give them space to erode further workers’ rights and environmental protections.

The sticking points in the negotiations are control over the UK’s fishing waters and the so-called “level playing field”. Part of the problem for Johnson is that the Leave campaign made a big deal about the UK’s fishing rights and made it synonymous with the rest of their rhetoric on reclaiming sovereignty. Reneging on that front would open the whole deal up to being seen as not “getting back control”.

But if fishing is a threat to sovereignty, then the EU’s competition laws are a far bigger threat. For Britain to accept the EU’s conditions, it would essentially have to allow EU authority over huge areas of how Britain is governed.

It would in a sense mean the UK being a de facto member of the Single Market rather than simply having access to it – and without any say. It would be a non-voting observer bound by the rules of an organisation that it couldn’t escape.

This would make Brexit pointless and wouldn’t be accepted by leave voters or the Tories’ pro-Brexit wing, who in the last general election became a majority in its parliamentary party for the first time.

While the reporting has dressed this up as being largely about EU interference on taxation, environmental regulations and workers’ rights, in reality the EU’s primary area of concern is state aid. Within the Single Market, the EU has strict rules on what industries and how much a government can invest in so as to not crowd out private investment and to allow private companies a ‘fair’ chance to compete in any sector.

Needless to say, this is a terrible rule that has been used to limit government spending in the areas that need it the most and to speed up the process of privatisation.  And violating these rules would open the government up to legal action.

It should be remembered that the EU agreed to the commitment to the level playing field moving from the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement to the non-legally binding Political Declaration in October last year. We can speculate to what extent that decision was based on Labour’s Brexit slide.

What is clear is that Corbyn’s promise to end the ‘rigged economy’ terrified the EU, so Labour moving ever closer to Remain had the effect of allaying the EU’s fears and making it increasingly unlikely that it was ever going to have to negotiate with a socialist, anyway, as astute observers in Brussels would have analysed the likely electoral effect of Labour’s position.

But even though Johnson is not committed to public spending, redistribution and nationalisation, it’s hard to see how he can concede on this point without having to admit that the EU will maintain a level of control on how Britain is run.

So the sticking points really do stick. The coronavirus crisis has only exacerbated the economic and political tensions in the continent that were generating growing opposition to the EU in a number of countries. If Britain is seen as having got off lightly, by maintaining the benefits of being in the EU without having to be in it, the whole EU project is undermined and anti-EU movements and political parties on the left and right given a boost throughout the bloc.

Equally, it is in the interests of capital in both Britain and Europe to get a deal, so that there is minimal disruption to business and the greatest possible cohesion that can allow the free (or at least cheap) movement of capital. If the ruling class can, it will try to intervene to try and stop a no-deal, but how possible that is will have to be seen.

Furthermore, we know the government does not have the contingencies in place to mitigate mass disruption – which will be the burden of working-class people and not those at the top. An idea of the potential scale of chaos to come can be seen by the MoD’s mobilisation of 14,000 personnel.

Whatever the outcome, this government clearly has no legitimacy. And whatever happens, there will be a price to pay. We need to be prepared to fight against any attempt to put this cost on working people and to get this shower out of power.

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Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.

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