What Theresa May’s Brexit deal means for global justice (if it happens)


15 November 2018

Global Justice Now took a ‘remain and reform’ position in the EU referendum – to stay in the EU in order to transform it. We feared that leaving would lead to an outpouring of xenophobia and racism, and would potentially unleash a wave of deregulation and liberalisation, especially through trade deals. We were right to be worried.

Today, Theresa May has presented her long-anticipated withdrawal deal to parliament, along with a shorter set of political objectives for Britain’s future relationships with the EU (the ‘political declaration’). Here’s our take on the most important elements of these negotiations for our work. 

1. Things will be harder for EU migrants, and no better for other migrants    

Free movement of people between the EU and UK will end. For Britain this brings to an end a really important policy that put human rights ahead of an individual’s economic value, and that put power in the hands of the individual rather than their employer.

There will still be rights maintained for EU citizens who have moved here and British citizens in the rest of the EU. However, as we’ve seen in the Windrush scandal, the ‘right’ to be here doesn’t necessarily mean very much in practice, will entail a lot of paperwork, and is more limited than rights existing under free movement.

In the future, migration is intended to enable “Arrangements on temporary entry and stay of natural persons for business purposes” [my italics] meanwhile “Provisions to enable free movement of capital” will remain. Free the money, not the people.

Of course, the EU’s own external migration policy is a disgrace. During the referendum some people raised this, and we were told that Brexit would give us the opportunity to design a fairer migration system. Sadly, this was never likely to happen, and our future relationship with the EU will include “Cooperation to tackle illegal migration through operational cooperation, dialogue, cooperation in third countries”. This is deeply worrying, and suggests Britain will try to retain or join deals which push our human right responsibilities onto poor countries in North Africa

2. Britain will have less power over important laws than it does now

The withdrawal deal gives important promises to not take steps back on climate policy and workers’ rights for the length of the transition period. And the political declaration promises long-term convergence with the EU on human rights and climate policy – as well as convergence on some less positive aspects of EU policy like procurement and state aid (this clause, which continues state aid rules for four years after transition, seems particularly directed at a potential Labour government).

But this also leaves a huge democratic deficit. For the transition period (which will last two years but will almost certainly need to be extended) Britain will continue to make membership contributions, without getting any say at all over the laws that govern Britain. Even accepting that such a period of transition might be necessary, the political declaration suggests ongoing cooperation and even convergence of rules across a huge number of public policies, presumably including substantial contributions to EU budgets. European legal interpretation will continue to be important.      

Yet to be bound by rules we cannot change, presumably locked in by a form of trade deal, can’t be a serious long-term strategy. In fact, it raises huge questions about whether it’s even possible for nation states to have complete sovereignty in 2018 – and if not, how we democratise the regional and global structures we need to make decisions which can no longer be taken at a nation-state level (excepting absolutely enormous nation-states like the US and China). For all its problems and democratic deficit, and while fully acknowledging that many more decisions should be made at a local level, the EU does give us the ability to shape rules and laws at a higher level. We lose that after Brexit – being forced to accept rules made by others.    

3. Brexit risks making EU reform harder

We have always been very critical of the EU, in particular the direction of travel towards embracing a corporate-controlled global economy, the disgraceful treatment of migrants and indeed of member states like Greece. Transforming the EU will be hard, but we don’t think it’s impossible.

In the short term, however, it seems like Brexit has not been positive for instigating that reform. In core European countries like France and Germany, it has spurred politicians to push forward with deeply controversial integration like the creation of an EU army. What’s more, the utter shambles of Britain’s plans for departure has sent a chilling message to any weaker country that wants to leave for genuinely good reasons: ‘it brought chaos to Britain, don’t even think you could achieve it’. It makes it significantly harder for other countries to pursue this option.  

4. This is not an independent trade policy

The one positive about the ‘political declaration’ (the second, less detailed document that the prime minister has agreed about the future relationship with the EU) is that it’s a fairly good model for a trade negotiation mandate. Every trade deal the UK undertakes should be accompanied by such a mandate, which should be open to amendment and vote by parliament. Sadly, there is currently no such necessity for the Secretary of State for International Trade to have to produce such a document before jetting off to meet the US administration and negotiate a trade deal with them.

Beyond the form, there are also some warm words in the political declaration about climate change and human rights. But the direction of travel is still uncertain. On the one hand, it suggests a very deep trade deal that leaves the UK in the customs union in all but name (with very little say over trade policy). On the other hand, we know that for many Brexiters this is a red line that can’t be crossed, and that they want to move us closer to a US-style economy. So essentially this decision has simply been kicked down the road.

And so we return to the dilemma at the heart of Brexit. Brexit is essentially the result of a  disagreement in the political establishment (and in the Conservative Party in particular) about the direction of the British economy – as an ultra-free market ‘Singapore on Thames’ on the one hand or a part of the EU on the other, pushing that bloc towards ever more free market policies. But this choice – between the European customs union, with all the neoliberal economics that entails and no ability to change it, or having an independent trade policy which turns us into Singapore on Thames – is not a choice worth having. Neither will help us build a fairer society here or a less exploitative role internationally.

That’s why we continue to believe that the best way forward is to stay in the EU, and to transform it from below – by joining together the many radical ‘fearless cities’ pushing for remunicipalisation, energy democracy, food sovereignty and so many other ways of reclaiming society from corporate power.

Whether or not we will be given an opportunity to think again remains to be seen. But the deal announced by Theresa May today either enacts or fails to rule out several of the worst possible outcomes for Brexit that we set out after the referendum. As such, MPs should vote it down.


Photo:  Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916

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