Those of us who admire and support your leadership of the Labour party are delighted that you have arranged to have an “extensive” face-to-face meeting with Michel Barnier in Brussels today. This will provide a vital opportunity for you to get a clear and unvarnished sense of the realities of the Brexit talks, which bear little relationship to the rhetoric of government ministers.
But it will also enable the European commission, which has the responsibility of handling the Brexit negotiations for all EU governments, to understand your ambitions for the UK’s future relationship with the EU as the prime minister in waiting. This, of course, will be about much more than the details of the Brexit process, important though they are.
For example, the commission will be interested in your declared ambition to work together with the other EU social democratic and socialist governments to reorient the European economy towards growth, job creation and greater economic and social equality. Commissioners sense that the sociopolitical tide in key EU countries is changing – as indeed it is. It will encourage them to consider initiatives that reflect the new priorities of member states.
It would, incidentally, be good to hear more about Labour’s thinking in this wider context. Not least, that would provide relief from the turgid, intellectually barren and profoundly reactionary populist/nationalist priorities that inspire the government.
Michel Barnier will, quite rightly, not spare you the harsh realities of the future Brexit choices facing any UK government. The notion that Britain can profit from full access to the single market and the customs union but not have to meet the obligations that go with it is strictly for the birds.
It is now widely accepted that if the UK leaves the EU in spring 2019, to survive economically it will need not just a “transition period” but (in the view of much of British industry) a transition that is significantly longer than the very brief “implementation period” talked of by Tory ministers.
I am confident that you will also be told that, during any transitional period (whether three, five or seven, or more years), EU laws and regulations and the judicial role of the European court of justice will continue to apply fully in the UK. Translating that into UK political language, the country will – to all appearances – continue to be a member of the EU until sometime between 2022 and 2026 or possibly even later.
Of course appearances will not disguise one major difference in the UK’s status in the EU. It will not have any voice or any vote within the decision-making EU institutions (commission, council of ministers, European parliament). It will have to accept new EU laws and regulations without being able to shape them.
Many who share your radical, reforming values and goals find this deeply unsatisfactory. The economic, social, environmental and human rights goals you have rightly set out for the government will, critically, depend on sympathetic parallel action being taken by Britain’s closest economic partners and democratic allies.
As the May government suffers what may prove to be its protracted death agonies, the Labour party in parliament faces some tricky tactical and strategic choices. Some of your PLP colleagues seem not to be above playing ambition-driven, internal factional games with these difficult choices.
Keir Starmer, your frontbench Brexit spokesman, has rightly said he will hold David Davis to his promise that he will get a free trade deal with the EU that would provide “exactly the same benefits the UK currently has from the single market”. So if reality does not meet that objective, you will be fully justified in mobilising for a parliamentary majority to reject the eventual “deal”.
Before the deal has to be approved – no later than March 2019 – events may have made a new general election unavoidable. In which case you would be fully entitled to campaign on a platform making clear that if the final terms of Brexit do worsen Britain’s economic difficulties, and thus impede your government’s programme, then you would withdraw from the article 50 process. The time limit for withdrawal expires only in March 2019.
This would give time for your government to enter new negotiations with the EU on a wide-ranging programme of economic, employment, social and democratic reforms across the EU. It would be open to the government to put any new EU reform treaty which results to a new UK referendum.
The balance of political forces in the European Union is moving against the populist right. New progressive currents are arising in a variety of forms in different EU countries and the establishment centre parties are weakening and fragmenting.
If there is no election before David Davis returns from the Brexit negotiations, you will still be well-placed to mobilise a parliamentary majority for rejection and put the government out of its misery. You would then be able to fight a general election with a far-reaching programme of UK and European Union reform with allies across Europe that the Tories will never have. I believe people across this country who are desperate for change would respond to the call.
With best wishes,