Triggering Article 50- what now?
30 March 2017
I'm writing this from Bangladesh - where I've been looking at progress in improving working conditions in the garment sector after the Rana Plaza disaster 4 years ago. If I thought I would escape from Article 50 and all that- I was wrong. Here in Bangladesh, everyone is asking me what on earth the UK government is doing. Could it really be true that the UK is leaving the EU? You may think for people in Bangladesh, EU/UK relations are low down the priority list. But you'd be wrong. When Britain joined the EU, its former colonies gained privileged trade access not just to the UK but to much bigger EU market, a policy that has allowed a huge expansion of the Bangladeshi garment, footwear and other sectors, with a corresponding rise in living standards. Now uncertainty about future trade access to the UK, their largest market, is casting a long shadow over their economy too.
The Bangladeshis aren't the only ones asking what happens next. I'm sceptical that even the government really knows. Brexit is an enormous gamble with our country's future, by a Tory Party bent on resolving its internal divisions, putting party before the interests of the country. A lot was promised by the Leave side during the referendum. Even more was promised by Brexit ministers after June 23rd and from today, we will see if the ‘have our cake and eat it’ model can be delivered upon. Everywhere we see inconsistencies: David Davis saying all government departments have a backup plan in the event of no deal, yet he told the Brexit Select Committee no assessment had been carried out on the no-deal option. It's an approach causing despair among the business community who rely on the single market. The EEF, the body representing the steel industry and other manufacturers, warned the government this week “Forget all notion of crashing out of the EU without a deal and leaving business to pick up the pieces – focus instead on an orderly and smooth transition, the continuation of barrier-free trade, minimisation of costs and ongoing access to required talent and skills. Nothing less will do”. Tough words from an organisation of employers to a Tory government.
In fact, the only consistent message from leading Brexiteers is to remove "red tape" by which they mean rights at work, environmental protection etc. Protecting jobs, the economy and these rights is a priority for Labour. Yes, Labour MPs voted to support the triggering of Article 50, consistent with a policy not to frustrate the process of leaving the EU. But Keir Starmer has made it clear to this does not mean giving Theresa May a blank cheque. In a major speech (watch here) Labour has set six tests as our red lines for any deal:
1. Does it ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU?
2. Does it deliver the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the Single Market and the Customs Union?
3. Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?
4. Does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom?
5. Does it protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime?
6. Does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK?
A tough ask? Maybe. But the government has routinely promised us such a deal. And they must be held to it. As of now, we have two years to get agreement and the clock is already ticking.
So where does this leave us now? We will have a response to the Prime Minister’s letter from the EU probably on Friday. There will be a resolution setting out the European Parliament’s position next week. It is important to remember that until Brexit happens the UK will remain a full member of the EU and there is still much work to be done. Labour MEPs will also get a vote on the final deal. In the meantime, we are doing all we can to ensure the protection of jobs and the economy.