There is still a lot to play for in minimising the obstacles to working-class solidarity and to free movement across borders which may come from the 23 June Brexit vote.
New Tory prime minister Theresa May says “Brexit means Brexit”, trying to appear resoundingly definite. But still no-one know what Brexit means or how it might happen. Even the pro-Brexit media give most space to claims that Brexit has not caused the expected economic damage, claims which may well soon fizzle.
May’s more definite statements are:
• Despite the Tory Leave campaigners’ shouting, there will be no £350 million extra for the NHS, no end to VAT on fuel bills, and no quick cut-off for British payments into the EU budget.
• Article 50, the formal trigger for exit negotiations with a two-year deadline, will not be activated in 2016 (but she has indicated it will be early in 2017)
• She plans to trigger Article 50 without a parliamentary vote.
• She also rejects an early general election. The Tories currently have a poll lead of about 14%. But under law passed under the 2010 government, she would need a two-thirds parliamentary majority to call an election.
• “A points-based system [for immigration, like Australia, as demanded by many Tory Leave campaigners] will not work and is not an option”. For May there are probably two problems here. Australia’s “points” immigrants are supplemented by lots of short-term migrant workers on Working Holiday and 457 (employer-sponsored) temporary visas. And to get market access, openings for British banks to do business in the EU, and a workable deal for British citizens living or wanting to live in the EU, she has to offer something softer than “points”.
• However, she has pretty much ruled out the “Norwegian option”, membership of the European Economic Area, a sort of three-quarters membership of the EU, opting in to the single market and free movement, but out of the EU’s political structures.
The big-business, free-market Adam Smith Institute favoured Leave and then EEA, and many pro-Remain Tories want it too. The pressure on May to keep Brexit fairly “soft” was signalled by an official Japanese government statement on 4 September. “Japanese businesses with their European headquarters in the UK may decide to transfer their head-office function to continental Europe if EU laws cease to be applicable in the UK after its withdrawal”, and Japanese financial institutions may “relocate their operations from the UK to existing establishments in the EU”.
At present Britain scoops most Japanese investment directed to the EU, and that investment is important for British capital. Owen Smith, the right-wing candidate for Labour leader pretending to be a left-winger, has tried to sound militant on Brexit. Despite more muffled language, Jeremy Corbyn has been clear on the principles here — defending freedom of movement, seeking unity for a social Europe as against the current neo-liberal Europe. Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry has said: “The Labour Party is clear: Instead of ‘pushing ahead’ with Article 50, those negotiations should not be triggered until the Government has put forward a clear plan about what it is seeking to achieve, how it will go about it, and until the public, Parliament, the devolved administrations, London and Gibraltar have given their approval to that plan.” Corbyn has said: “Is there a way of having a European Economic Area agreement, possibly via Norway and other countries? Yeah, there probably is”.
That leaves unanswered what Labour’s attitude will be to a Tory Brexit on definitely non-EEA lines, which May now seems set on. The 23 June vote implies no democratic duty on Labour to support whatever the Tories make of the undefined “Brexit” mandate, or to rule out a second referendum on a unpopular “Brexit” deal. Labour should challenge the Tories in parliament over triggering Article 50 with a build-the-barriers Brexit plan; defend freedom of movement; fight the Tories; and work to save and extend labour movement unity across the continent for a social and democratic (workers’) Europe, against the current neo-liberal Europe.