Labour's former Leader in the European Parliament, Richard Corbett, makes a powerful case that the issue of Brexit is far from settled in British politics.

Like it or not, the advice that we should now "move on" from Brexit is wrong, for three reasons.


1. The deal is incomplete


The Agreement signed with the EU on Christmas Eve has several gaps, postpones some key issues until later, and provides for others to be revisited. Further political storms are on their way.


Almost nothing is settled for services (80% of the UK economy). Take financial services: in the next months, the unresolved issue of access for British financial services to the EU market will come to a head.  At stake are thousands of jobs and billions of pounds of tax revenue. 


Still open is whether Britain links its own emissions trading scheme to the EU’s (part of implementing the Paris climate change agreement); how the MHRA will work with the European Medicines Agency (important for the hot issue of medical supplies); conformity assessments (whether UK-based testing labs can continue to certify that UK produced products meet EU requirements); the frequency of border inspections on food products, mutual recognition of professional qualifications; how much the UK will contribute to the EU budget (given that it wants to continue to participate in the EU's research programmes); and much else.


Britain has postponed carrying out import checks for 6 months (defying WTO rules), so all the issues of lorry queues and delays will resurface in the other direction - especially as the UK has not recruited and trained enough customs agents. Similarly, derogations and waivers to facilitate trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland will expire midway through 2021.


The governance of the agreement requires the setting up of a Partnership Council, co-chaired by a UK Minister and a European Commissioner, which will run the show - and even has the power to change the agreement without parliamentary approval! Under it, 19 specialised committees will cover issues such as energy, environment, trade, competition, subsidies, etc. All this is supposed to be monitored by a Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, composed of MPs/Lords and MEPs - but how will this work and who will sit on it for the UK - will they be elected by Parliament, or appointed by the government? Ditto for the proposed "Civil Society Forum" where there are fears it will be packed with Tory donors.


The Agreement contains numerous review clauses and dispute settlement processes that could lead to parts of the deal being suspended. If Britain tries to undercut EU standards on the environment, workers' rights, consumer protection or unfair subsidies for firms, then these mechanisms will be triggered and could result in the re-imposition of tariffs. Regular disputes are likely. There have already been leaks about the possible watering down of the working time directive. 


Last but not least, the deal as a whole is up for review in 5 years time - soon after the next election.


2. Brexit harms many


From fish and farming exporters to touring musicians and artists, from supermarkets supplying Northern Ireland to lorry drivers in queues in Kent, from Brits who retired abroad to European spouses of Brits in Britain: those facing what the government calls "teething" problems of Brexit will find out that these are, in fact, here to stay.  Livelihoods are being lost, tax revenue is taking a hit and a host of small practical problems (from the ending of pet passports to the reintroduction of roaming charges) will cause numerous irritations.


Free trade applies only to goods that are actually British - not those imported to re-export.  This requires onerous and bureaucratic rules of origin checks, pursuant to WTO rules - a huge cost in red tape for small firms. It also kills UK trading hubs that were distribution centres for the whole of Europe.


The new VAT rules, requiring continental suppliers to pay in advance just to register with the Treasury, have prompted some smaller EU businesses to choose not to bother with the UK market, leading to shortages, not just of the odd supermarket item, but of key spare parts for machine tools and vehicles.


The reduced access for the UK police and Border Force to shared databases on criminal records, abducted children and terrorist suspects will inevitably lead to cases where criminals enter Britain (or get away) when they would not have previously.  Far from taking control of our borders, we have weakened it. We will no longer be able to use the European Arrest Warrant. At some point, public opinion will be enraged when a particularly horrific example arises.


Not to mention the government's gratuitous vandalism in refusing to stay in the Erasmus student exchange scheme.


3. People won't let it rest.


Those affected by all of the above are unlikely to keep quiet. They will demand repair work on the agreement. Some of that is possible without rejoining the EU.  


They will be joining with the significant body of public opinion that anyway continues to feel very strongly about Brexit.  Organisations such as the European Movement are seeing a surge in membership. They believe that Brexit was a national error, and that the very least we should do is repair some of the damage. 


Opinion polls already show a clear majority saying that Brexit was a mistake. If this becomes the received wisdom, it would not be the first time that the public turns decisively against something it had initially supported: think Munich, Suez, Iraq. The fact that Brexit reality bears no resemblance to what was promised will accentuate this trend.


And if that trend continues, voices demanding a closer relationship with the EU, and even those arguing to rejoin, will resonate more strongly. That in turn will put pressure on opposition parties and on any remaining Conservative moderates. So will the debate in Scotland, where being dragged out of the EU against its will is a key argument of those arguing for independence.


Avoiding these issues would be a strategic blunder. As the consequences of Brexit visibly impact people's lives, there will be plenty of attack lines available for the opposition about government incompetence, malevolence and broken promises.


At the next general election, the bulk of the electorate will probably not be voting in function of their views on Brexit, but the numbers of those who do will still be significant. 


Whichever way you look at it, the Brexit debate within Britain is far from over.


Richard Corbett CBE FRSA is the former Labour Leader in the European Parliament.

Share this page to spread the word.
Share Tweet