Thursday 19 September 2019

John Bruton: 'Corbyn and Co could help us avoid Brexit disaster - but they have their own agenda'

Impossible tests: Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn meets people at a centre for the long-term unemployed in Essex yesterday. Photo: Simon Dawson
Impossible tests: Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn meets people at a centre for the long-term unemployed in Essex yesterday. Photo: Simon Dawson

John Bruton

The worst possible outcome of Brexit for Ireland would be the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal next March because the UK parliament cannot make a decision. The key to avoiding this disaster is in the position of the British Labour Party.

So far, the focus of discussion in regard to Brexit has been on whether the minority Conservative government can reach sufficient consensus internally to make a deal to withdraw the UK from the EU.

But such a deal can only come into effect if it is approved by the House of Commons.

Here, the stance of the Jeremy Corbyn's Labour is crucial.

If Labour was open to supporting the deal, or even to abstaining in the vote, the DUP and the hardline Conservative Brexiteers would not be able to stop it.

On the other hand, if Labour, the DUP, and the hardline Brexiteers all oppose it, the deal will not come into effect.

There would then be massive political uncertainty, the likelihood of the UK crashing out of the EU on March 29, and a huge blow to the global economy.

One could then blame the DUP and the hardline Brexiteers.

But Labour, as the bigger party, would bear more responsibility than the others for this debacle.

The Labour Party has set six tests that it says the withdrawal agreement must pass if Labour is not to vote against it in the House of Commons.

On close examination, the tests seem to be designed to allow Labour to vote against any conceivable deal that Theresa May could negotiate on a withdrawal treaty.

These tests that Labour says the withdrawal agreement must pass are:

:: 'Does it ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU?'

This is impossible because the future relationship will not be negotiated now, but later during the transition period.

:: 'Does it deliver the 'exact same benefits' as we currently have as members of the single market and customs union?'

This is also impossible because there would be no point having an EU single market or customs union if, as a non-member, the UK could get all the benefits that members get. In any event, these issues will not be settled in the withdrawal treaty.

:: 'Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?'

The UK has not yet worked out its own future migration policy, so it is unreasonable to expect the withdrawal agreement to do what the UK government itself has been unable to do. In any event, what would Labour's migration policy be?

:: 'Does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom?'

This is not going to be settled now. It will be the subject of the future trade negotiations and the EU will be doing its best to ensure that the UK, outside the EU, does not reduce quality, environmental and labour standards to win market share.

:: 'Does it protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime?'

Again this is for the future negotiation, not for the withdrawal agreement. The only way the UK can take part in the European Arrest Warrant is by staying in the EU and accepting the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. National security policy is the responsibility of member states, not the EU, and cannot be bound by an agreement made by the EU.

:: 'Does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK?'

This is a matter for the UK government, not the withdrawal deal from the EU.

So the agreement cannot pass these tests, for the simple reason that none of these six matters will be finalised until later.

They are not valid tests for a withdrawal agreement, and the Labour Party should know that.

It is true that the withdrawal agreement will be accompanied by a political declaration about the framework for future relations between the UK and the EU. But, legally speaking, this declaration cannot give binding commitments on the six points raised by Labour.

The Labour Party knows this perfectly well.

Its six tests are designed to give it a basis for rejecting any agreement Mrs May can negotiate.

That would be a legitimate and normal opposition tactic, if the government was one which had an overall majority. But it does not.

It depends on an agreement with the DUP, which the DUP has said it is prepared to break.

Let us assume Labour wins the vote to reject the agreement, what does Labour do then?

Obviously, Labour would like a general election or a change of government in this parliament.

But even if that happens, a Labour-led government could not negotiate a deal that would pass its own six tests between now and March 29 next year, the date on which the UK will be out of the EU, deal or no deal.

The only way Labour could pass its own six tests would be by withdrawing the Article 50 letter written by Mrs May, and seeking to keep the UK in the EU after all.

There is legal doubt as to whether the UK has the power to withdraw its Article 50 letter.

The European Court of Justice would have to adjudicate on that.

Secondly, staying in the EU after all would require a second referendum.

All this has huge implications for the whole of Ireland, not just the Border.

Irish Independent

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