Whatever our differing views on Brexit, the whole Labour Party and labour movement should call and campaign for the Brexit transition period due to end on 31 December to be extended significantly – at least an extra year, maybe the full two years permitted under existing rules.
Even before the Covid-19 crisis, the possibility of the UK striking a deal with the EU in time looked tenuous. The Tory government has been threatening to walk away and prepare for a No Deal Brexit if the essentials of a deal are not in place by June!
Now the next round of UK-EU talks have, because of the Covid-19 crisis, been cancelled. (As if symbolically, the chief negotiators on both sides are in isolation with symptoms!) Proceeding with Brexit at the end of this year certainly means a No Deal Brexit, which will combine with the dislocation from C-19 to produce an even worse economic and social catastrophe.
In addition to the huge economic shock of a No Deal Brexit in the midst of or soon after the C-19 crisis, No Deal will mean the UK exiting the EU’s Early Warning and Response System, which has helped during the current crisis and in previous outbreaks including bird flu, SARS and Ebola. It will also very likely mean British citizens living abroad losing their right to free healthcare.
Only the most zealous nationalist or wild-eyed supporter of disaster capitalism eager to crash-restructure the economy at workers’ expense should welcome the prospect of crashing out of the EU in this way. Unfortunately, the UK government is run by people who fall in one or both of those categories.
Astoundingly, the UK is refusing to participate in EU procurement schemes for ventilators, protective gear for medical staff and testing kits, even though it is invited to do so.
The government could easily request an extension of the transition – there is an established UK-EU mechanism in place to do so – and it would certainly be granted. But it is clear from Boris Johnson and senior ministers’ comments that they do not want to.
Johnson told reporters: “It’s not a subject that’s being regularly discussed, I can tell you, in Downing Street at the moment. There is legislation in place that I have no intention of changing.” (The Tories’ Brexit Bill included wording to bar ministers from requesting an extension, but of course Parliament can change that decision.)
Meanwhile Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has not only dismissed suggestions of requesting an extension but argued that the crisis “makes the case for intensive diplomacy to get this deal done and move on”!
Labour for a Socialist Europe opposes Brexit. But the whole labour movement and left should unite to demand extension of the transition period, whatever our differing views on Brexit itself and on the best tactics after the Tories’ election victory. This is matter of basic working-class self-defence of our already severely damaged rights and living standards.
Most importantly, the Labour Party and its leadership must start making this demand loudly and insistently.
Campaigning and forcing the Tories to concede on this will help prevent an exacerbated disaster, and weaken them and strengthen us for many other necessary struggles too.