What does Brexit mean now? (According to the White Paper)
Last Thursday, the Government published its hastily promised and delivered white paper on exiting the European Union. The United Kingdom’s exit from and new partnership with the European Union was longer than many expected, but did not really add much to what the Prime Minister said in her Lancaster House speech last month.
There was some sniggering about the mis-labelled bar chart suggesting that the EU guarantees 14 weeks paid holiday every year; astonishment that the argument over sovereignty has been transformed from ‘taking back control’ to how sovereign we feel; and some media speculation that the white paper suggested free movement would continue for several years after Brexit. But on the crucial issue of working people’s rights, there was none of the clarity or certainty that we were seeking.
The TUC’s response to the White Paper focused on rights at work and jobs, with the General Secretary saying:
“The white paper tells us little we did not already know, and still leaves working people exposed to risks to their rights and jobs. And it says nothing about how the NHS and our public services will be protected in trade deals from predatory international companies. While it’s good to see the government maintain its commitment to protecting existing workers’ rights, people need to know the government won’t seek to compete in a race to the bottom that allows their rights to fall behind workers in the rest of Europe. So Theresa May should confirm that future trade deals with the EU will include a commitment to abide by minimum EU requirements for workers’ rights.
“The government has set out its aspirations for trade agreements once we’ve left the EU. But there’s little explanation of how jobs and living standards will be kept safe while those deals are negotiated. This is especially important if we are to run the bigger risks that come with leaving the single market too. The Chancellor must use his budget to show how people’s jobs and living standards will be protected.”
So, what else did the white paper tell us?
Certainty and clarity
Chapter one sets out the Parliamentary scrutiny the Government has so far conceded, such as a Great Repeal Bill (where we’ll be watching for loopholes allowing swift and unscrutinised deregulation of workplace protections) and a vote on the eventual terms of the EU-UK separation deal. The TUC does not share the Government’s current view that at the end of the negotiations, Parliament should be offered a straight choice between accepting whatever deal is on offer or crashing out of the EU without a deal, but we suspect the real decision about how the end game happens will depend not on the votes on the Article 50 trigger legislation currently before Parliament, and more on how the Article 50 negotiations proceed, and what is happening to the economy at the time.
Taking control of our own laws
Chapter two contains the frankly remarkable claim that, while sovereignty has in fact remained with Parliament ever since we joined the EU, “it has not always felt like that.” It also sets out the Government’s plan to end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice over UK law, while accepting all sorts of trade agreement arbitration systems like the contentious Investor-State Dispute Settlement procedure. We are being asked not to ‘take back control’ but switch from a system where individual citizens can seek to enforce their rights to one reserved for foreign investors! It’s worth remembering that every time the UK Government lost a case in the ECJ, British citizens won, over working time pay arrangements, equality and much more.
Strengthening the Union
Sadly, not “the unions”. Chapter three is about how the devolved administrations will be addressed, now that the Supreme Court has ruled they have no veto. Again, there’s nothing new, and nothing like the Welsh Assembly’s Securing Wales’ Future paper, with its calls to secure a fair deal for UK and EU migrant workers, protect rights at work and retain levels of EU investment funding to protect decent jobs.
Protecting our strong and historic ties with Ireland
There’s still no detail on how the Common Travel Area for Ireland and the UK can be reconciled with an end to free movement, or how a frictionless trade arrangement between the UK and Ireland is compatible with leaving the single market and the customs union. And because those issues are unresolved, there is continuing concern about the impact on the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process overall. The TUC is working closely with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) on these issues.
Again – no detail is on offer about how the UK’s immigration system will affect Europeans in the future, and no measures to prevent exploitation or undercutting, investment in public services or support for integration. Media coverage on this chapter focused on the suggestion that free movement of some kind would remain for some years to allow employers – in the public as well as private sectors – time to adjust.
Securing rights for EU nationals in the UK (and UK nationals in the EU)
The fifth chapter repeats the Government’s commitment to negotiate a deal for the right to remain, rather than address people’s genuine concerns by taking unilateral steps. So the Government continues to hold out the prospect of mass expulsions, despite opposition from leave as well as remain voters, all shades of political opinion, and both sides of industry.
Protecting workers’ rights
It’s welcome – and a testament to union campaigning – that the white paper reiterates the Government’s commitment to retain the rights for working people currently guaranteed by EU membership. However, even if we could be certain that the promise would be kept, as soon as the UK leaves the EU, British workers’ rights will start to fall behind those in the rest of Europe because they will not be able to apply to the ECJ or rely on its judgments, and we will not automatically benefit from new EU directives or other measures. That is why the TUC is calling for a binding mechanism to ensure that we have access to the same or better rights as across Europe when we leave the EU and in any interim arrangement.
Ensuring free trade with European markets
Chapter seven sets out an ambitious objective – tariff-free trade in goods and the freest possible trade in services, without rules of origin requirements. The best way to achieve that would be to stay in the single market. Alternatively, the Government needs to set out how it will meet the regulatory and other requirements (including labour standards) that would be needed for such ‘frictionless’ trade with the rest of the EU. And the Government needs to set out – for example, in the forthcoming Budget – how it will guarantee good jobs at decent wages if these objectives cannot be met in full or in part.
Securing new trade arrangements with other countries
The white paper is again ambitious – or possibly wildly over-optimistic – about signing new trade deals once the UK leaves the EU. In reality, these agreements will take time, and for businesses and consumers, the alternative of relying on WTO arrangements would be punitive. Even with heroic assumptions about the speed of such negotiations and the positive impact on trade that would result, the TUC is also concerned about how such agreements would protect working people’s rights and living standards, and about the impact on public services, especially the NHS. The TUC would be totally opposed to signing deals with the US and other countries that included special rights for foreign investors which could disrupt public provision of quality services like education and health.
Ensuring the UK remains the best place for science and innovation
The TUC shares the Government’s ambition that Britain should lead the world on science and innovation, but we are concerned about future funding after the existing commitments come to an end. EU citizens living and working in the UK make a major contribution to our universities and other scientific centres, but face worries over their future residence rights. And we oppose the Government’s decision to leave Euratom, the European nuclear research agency, until a viable alternative can be found which protects Britain’s nuclear interests.
So, what does Brexit mean now?
We still don’t know. As negotiations with the rest of the EU come ever closer, working people, consumers, businesses and EU citizens in the UK face a worrying and uncertain future.