Norwegian, Swiss, or workers' road

Submitted by Matthew on 13 December, 2017 - 12:00
UK border

Editorial from Solidarity 457

The Tories' deal with the EU to open talks on future trade links suggests that they are headed on the Norwegian or Swiss road.

In February 2014 Switzerland voted in a referendum, by a narrow majority based outside the big cities, to mandate a constitutional amendment imposing quotas on immigration. Switzerland is currently in the Schengen passport-free area, and has a much higher rate of immigration than Britain.

By December 2016 the Swiss government had fixed a fudge. Swiss employers are now obliged to offer jobs first to job-seekers registered at Swiss job centres. Those may be EU citizens who have registered there. No quotas are in sight.

Switzerland is not in the EU, and, since another narrow referendum result in 19, not even in the looser European Economic Area. But, under a series of treaties negotiated in the late 1990s, it is committed to applying most of EU law in Switzerland.

The treaties stipulate that if one agreement falls, then they all fall. The EU told Switzerland that if it blocked freedom of movement for EU citizens, all its economic deals with the EU would fall. It suspended Swiss participation in some EU programs to show it was serious. The Swiss government sought a deal.

Norway voted, again narrowly, against EU membership in 1994. Successive Norwegian governments, without much controversy, then signed Norway up to the EEA, a wholesale version of what Switzerland has done by its linked treaties.

Norway has exemptions for its fishing industry, but has passport-free movement for EU citizens.

The Tory line now is that Britain will not be in the EU Single Market or Customs Union, but will have regulatory alignment. Yet the Single Market is only the EU's system of regulatory alignment.

Norway and Switzerland opt out of some parts of the Single Market, but align with it by accepting the core standards.
Gung-ho right-wing Tories want a low-regulation, low-tax, few-worker-rights Britain. They believe the attraction for global capital of low social overheads would outweigh the new economic barriers between Britain and the EU.

But most of the Tory right wing is quiet now, and supporting Theresa May.

The shrewd big-business types who always thought new economic barriers were foolish now see the way clear to nudging the Tories into a very soft and delayed Brexit.

Britain is bigger than Norway and Switzerland, and has larger non-EU economic ties, notably with the USA. But, in the Trump era, the chances of a shared-markets deal with the USA strong enough to offset the loss to Britain of EU ties are small.

In the USA, much of Trump's voter appeal has been based on his economic protectionism. But nationalists in Britain usually favour trade deals in general. Almost all anti-EU ideologues promised more and better trade deals outside the EU, and not a walled-off Britain.

The Single Market was and remains popular even among Brexit voters. For example, an August poll found 66% saying that the priority for the British Government when negotiating the UK's withdrawal from the EU should be maintaining access to the Single Market.

The same poll showed that if the choice is poised flatly Single Market and free movement, or blocking migration and losing trade a majority says Single Market and free movement is the better deal.

In other words, the reality that the productive forces generated by capitalism have grown so as to make its old national borders archaic and cramping has impressed itself, not just on socialists, who were saying that over a hundred years ago, but even on most conservatives.

All that is to the good. But still the Tories are fomenting anti-migrant prejudice. Still the Tories maybe through the mass prejudice at their base against soft Brexit may fumble their way to a destructive, anti-migrant, hard Brexit.

It should be Labour's job to counterpose a way forward: open borders, free movement, economic integration and social levelling-up.

Yet Labour's leaders are still equivocating. On 11 December shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said: Remaining within the single market would not respect the referendum result.

He must know that the polls say otherwise. So he equivocated by saying that he is for a, not the, Single Market.

Of course EU Single Market regulations can be improved. But only from within the EU. It's as if in 1752, when Britain changed its calendar to fit with Europe, and there were riots in protest, someone should say: We are for a single calendar, but not the single calendar. Or in the 1840s, when clock time was harmonised across England, and cities such as Bristol and Oxford resisted well into the 1850s, someone should say: We want a single time, but not the single time.

McDonnell talked of a single market, not the single market, and a customs union not the customs union, so therefore a reformed single market or a new negotiated relationship with the single market...

We want to be as close as we possibly can to ensure tariff-free access... as close a relationship with the single market as we can and possibly a customs union... We want to keep all the options on the table and that way we think we can protect the economy...

Labour's job should be to keep on the table the option of staying in the EU, making labour-movement links across Europe, and fighting for free movement, social levelling-up, and solidarity.