Labour is ignoring the realities of Brexit – but it cannot avoid the issue forever

Irish Sea Border – Source: Alan Morris / Alamy Stock Photo

Temporary fixes are urgently needed to get goods, trade and lorries transported more freely from the continent. But a comprehensive new treaty will inevitably be required.

Wonders never cease. The Mail on Sunday is joining the European Movement, which I chair, in wanting to renegotiate Boris Johnson’s inadequate Brexit deal and move Britain much closer to the EU. “Let’s unite with the EU to crush the curse of border bureaucracy,” the tabloid’s leader column stated at the weekend. Amen to that.

Uniting with the EU

Maybe we will be rejoining sooner than people think—including the Labour leadership, which still refuses even to mention Brexit in the context of the HGV driver shortage, empty supermarkets and shortages of medical equipment.

The Mail on Sunday’s editor wasn’t proposing that we rejoin the EU immediately, of course. In a classic display of “cakeism,” his recipe for ending the Brexit delivery and supply crisis was for the EU unilaterally to suspend the red tape imposed on a poor unsuspecting Blighty by the dastardly Michel Barnier whose true intentions, the Mail revealed, are now exposed by the damning news that the Frenchman is (wait for it) running to be president of France. Brexit was a French plot all along!

But for all the excitement of the “revelation” that the EU is run by, well, Europeans, many of them French, that position won’t change soon. And since the only way of “uniting with the EU to crush border bureaucracy” is to renegotiate Johnson’s damaging deal with the EU which entrenches precisely such bureaucracy, then once the latest bout of cakeism has given way to reality there is only one way that such “uniting” can go. Which is to unite. 

It was always obvious to anyone with the slightest understanding of trade, business and investment that leaving the EU’s Customs Union and Single Market would be deeply damaging to British trade, business and investment. The more we left, the worse it would be. The whole founding purpose of the EU was “to crush the curse of border bureaucracy,” and most of the EU’s major initiatives throughout its 70-year history, including the single currency, were primarily motivated by that objective. Yes, sovereignty was pooled in key areas, but always for mutual benefit.

Tragically, Johnson and Farage repudiated Napoleon’s dictum that England was a nation of shop keepers and have turned us into a nation of shop shortages. But now that Brexit is—literally—both a bread-and-butter and, with those medical supply threats, a life-and-death issue, England’s famed pragmatism will, I suspect, swing into action pretty soon.

Rejoining the EU, step by step

First will have to come temporary suspensions and amendments to Johnson’s Brexit deal to get more goods, trade and lorries flowing freely to and from the continent. This will probably also involve re-subscribing to EU food safety and farm and fish transit rules, quietly laying aside the absurd argument of David Frost, Johnson’s pointlessly pugilistic Europe minister, that these arrangements could infringe British sovereignty to do certain unspecified things differently, just for the sake of it—or for the sake of a mythical trade deal with the US and Timbuktu (those being equally likely in the foreseeable future).  

This first stage probably won’t be a comprehensive new treaty to replace Johnson’s Orwellian “EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement” of last December—whose result, by design, was a sharp reduction in EU-UK trade and co-operation. A series of ad hoc temporary fixes will have to suffice.

The second stage will need to be a new treaty which, in effect, takes the United Kingdom—or however much of it is united by then—back into the Customs Union and large parts of the Single Market. This is what most Brexiters, including Johnson and Farage, themselves said they favoured before 2016, until leaving everything with the word “EU” attached suddenly became the virility test of a redefined Brexit well after the referendum.  

This second stage probably requires a change of government, hopefully in the next decade. Although never underestimate the ability of Tory leaders to change their tune when they sense that the voters might rebel and put them out of power.

The Labour leadership won’t at the moment even utter the word “Brexit,” let alone “renegotiation.” In a fit of panic after losing the last election—a loss largely due to Corbyn, the most unelectable proposition put to the British electorate in modern times—the post-Corbyn leadership thought that ignoring Europe would somehow make Brexit go away. But as it slowly dawns that a strategy to boost British trade with the EU is the solution, not the problem, in respect of forging the credible economic policy Labour needs to regain support, this will change. The sooner and more decisively it changes, the sooner and more decisively Labour and its opposition allies will gain power, and put the levers of state in the hands of a leader who can seize and shape this agenda effectively.

The third stage? Well, you know what this is. Suffice to say, the Mail strongly supported that cause too back in the 1970s when the Conservative party—representing the nation of shopkeepers—took us into the EU first time around.

Oh, and a few facts. An estimated 14,000 EU drivers have left the country and only 600 have returned since Brexit. And there are now hundreds of thousands of unfilled posts in the food and drink industry, from farms to meat processing plants to restaurant kitchens. Do the maths.

Ed: This article first appeared in Andrew Adonis’s weekly newsletter for Prospect, “The Insider”. 
Andrew recently spoke as Chair of European Movement UK to Oxford for Europe on ‘Step By Step Towards Rejoin’:

Please send any comments on this article to:
If you would like to contribute to our progressive publication, please get in touch.

Read more articles from West England Bylines here >>>

Ed: This article first appeared in Andrew Adonis’s weekly newsletter for Prospect, “The Insider”.