Issue date
10 Sep 2018
With less than eight months to go before the UK is due to leave the EU, the Conservative government has comprehensively failed to negotiate a Brexit that meets its own red lines, let alone one that protects the jobs, rights and livelihoods of working people across the UK. 

Since Congress 2017, internal Conservative party politics have taken priority over the interests of working people. Sackings and resignations have made it impossible for the government to agree a negotiating position with itself - never mind with our EU partners. The Chequers agreement took two years to develop yet fell apart within days. The EU Withdrawal Act revealed as a sham the prime minister’s repeated promise to workers that their rights would be protected, while at the same time denied MPs a truly meaningful vote on the Brexit deal. The trade and customs bills have been subject to delays, concessions, and backroom deals to avoid embarrassing parliamentary defeats, with the prime minister barely surviving key votes and her fragile working majority under constant threat.

The government has also failed to address many of the reasons why people voted to leave the EU in the first place.
Frances O'Grady issued a challenge to the Prime Minister at TUC Congress 2018: if her deal doesn’t deliver for working people, then this country’s trade unions will mobilise for a popular vote on the deal.

Insecurity at work, employer abuses of open labour markets and bad jobs; a failed industrial strategy; lack of investment in transport and infrastructure and a failure to address a growing housing crisis alongside on-going austerity driven cuts to our schools and hospitals continue to blight people’s lives and devastate communities. The people who are most affected by these issues will not benefit from the sort of hard, right-wing Brexit that is being proposed by the government.

The far-right, bolstered by international support, have taken advantage in our communities, taking their message of hate, fear and despair onto our streets and football terraces. Their opportunistic narratives and new, digital ways of organising do not disguise their true motivations or age-old anti-semitism and attempts to scapegoat Muslims, migrants and other minorities for the government’s decisions to deliver an economy that works only for big business and the rich, abandoning communities and neglecting our public services. EU citizens and other migrants in the UK are feeling less and less welcome, and British citizens abroad face similar uncertainty and worry.

Unions are tackling the issues that matter to our members and workers generally, whether Brexit-related or not. The Brexit that is being proposed, poses threats to our manufacturing and service industries, to the funding and staffing of public services, to further and higher education, science and research institutions, health and social care provision, arts, media and heritage. Some of the impacts of Brexit are already affecting people’s jobs and livelihoods but worse may be to come. People have seen prices rise and wages stagnate or fall. As the Cabinet’s own leaked advice revealed, any Brexit scenario is likely to make the situation worse, but some scenarios will be even worse than others.

While the government flails and the far-right marches, the countdown to Brexit continues - and the risk that the UK will crash out of the EU in 200 days becomes ever more real. There can be no doubt that if that happens, working people our families and communities will pay the price.

The General Council statement ‘Making a jobs first rights first Brexit a reality’ agreed by Congress in 2017 set out the TUC’s objectives for the Brexit negotiations. It highlighted three tests that any withdrawal agreement and final status deal must collectively meet: 

  • Maintaining workers’ existing rights and establishing a level playing field so that British workers’ rights do not fall behind those of other European workers
  • Preserving tariff-free, barrier-free, frictionless trade with the rest of Europe to protect jobs
  • Ensuring that trade and livelihoods in Gibraltar and Ireland are protected

These three tests continue to guide our work on Brexit.  

The Withdrawal Agreement and the risks of crashing out in March 2019

A smooth and orderly Brexit can only happen if the UK and EU approve a withdrawal agreement before the UK leaves the EU on 29 March 2019. This package must include agreement on citizens’ rights, Northern Ireland, budget contributions and a transition period. It is likely to be accompanied by a non-binding political declaration on the UK’s future relationship with EU.

The TUC is particularly concerned that the transition period must be agreed as this will provide both the additional time necessary for the detailed negotiation of our future trade and political relationship with the EU during which we will benefit from a further (albeit short) period of protection for tariff-free, barrier-free frictionless trade with the EU, as well as protecting workers’ existing rights and making sure that UK workers benefit from any further EU rights introduced during this period. We have also repeatedly called for no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, to preserve jobs, livelihoods and peace. 

The prime minister’s red lines on no membership of a customs union or single market threaten the Good Friday Agreement and continued peace in Northern Ireland by making a hard border inevitable.

The cabinet has looked for a way out of this self-created crisis, proposing a number of customs proposals that have not survived scrutiny and have not been considered serious by EU negotiators. 

The lack of progress on agreeing a Withdrawal Agreement means that the UK could crash out of the EU without a deal on 29 March 2019. Even if the UK and the EU somehow agree a deal in time, it is not clear that the prime minister can command a majority for it to pass in parliament. 

If the government fails to agree a Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, there would be no smooth transition period giving space to negotiate a final status deal. A disorderly exit would lead to the immediate creation of trade barriers and the imposition of tariffs by the EU under generic World Trade Organisation rules. This will have a profoundly damaging impact on trade and on jobs across the UK. It will mean prices in the shops will go up and there could be shortages of EU sourced products and goods. 

A ‘no deal’ Brexit would expose the vulnerability of workers within the UK economy given our comparatively low levels of social protection and constrained Union rights. It will lead to an immediate hard border on the island of Ireland, jeopardising peace. 

A range of key cross border agencies, initiatives and sector level regulatory forums will break down in many areas, including the certification for use of components and manufactured goods, nuclear safety, air travel and medical co-operation. There would be a damaging impact on the recognition of professional qualifications. Britain would lose its access to Euratom, the European Medicines Agency and the European Aviation Safety Agency, as well as the Galileo project. And it would leave EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU in an uncertain legal position.

The economic and social damage that would be caused by crashing out mean that no responsible government should allow the UK to leave the EU in this way. 

With 200 days to go before the UK leaves the EU, there is no sign of a realistic resolution on the table.  The TUC calls on the government urgently to rethink their failed negotiating strategy and abandon their self-defeating red lines. We reject the argument put by the government that MPs have no choice but to vote for whatever deal the prime minister can secure, or risk the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal. If the government cannot conclude a Withdrawal Agreement, or if what it negotiates does not secure Parliament’s support, or

If the deal would be bad for workers’ jobs, rights and livelihoods, we demand an immediate general election to allow parties to put their plans for Brexit to the voters, and the extension of the Article 50 process to avoid crashing out of the EU with no deal and allow time for the a post-election negotiation of a deal that works for working people.

The UK’s future relationship with the EU 

As well as the Withdrawal Agreement, the UK and EU need to agree a future relationship before the end of a transition period to avoid a damaging shock to the UK economy, similar to the impact of crashing out without a Withdrawal Agreement. 

And as the 2017 General Council statement said, we believe in keeping all options on the table and ruling nothing out. Any deal must be realistic and achievable through positive, constructive but tough negotiations with the EU. 

Over the past year we have made the case for a relationship that meets the TUC’s three tests set out above on workers’ rights, jobs, and Northern Ireland:  

  • For workers’ rights to be protected and enforceable now and into the future, Britain’s final status deal with the EU must include a level playing field for workers’ rights to stop unfair competition and ensure good employers are not undercut by the bad.
  • A prosperous UK needs tariff-free, barrier-free, frictionless trade in goods and services with the rest of Europe. EU trade accounts for about half of all British exports; is vital to the employment of over three million workers either directly or indirectly; and provides good jobs with higher wages, training opportunities and skill levels than average. 
  • There must be no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, or more restrictions on the border between Gibraltar and Spain

As we agreed in 2017 General Council statement, we are willing to consider any proposals that would meet those tests, including negotiating a new single market relationship, or working up from a bespoke trade deal. At present we should not rule out unrestricted access to the single market through continued membership outside the EU as this meets our tests. 

Several other countries are outside the EU but inside the single market and if the outcome of negotiations with the EU was for the UK to stay in the single market in the longer-term, the TUC would continue to push, especially through the ETUC, for reforms so that the single market better serves working people’s needs including reforming competition rules. And the UK should look at other EU countries’ models of free movement, and should use all the domestic powers at its disposal to manage the impact of migration.  Membership of a customs union with the rest of the EU is vital to ensure that tariffs are not imposed between the UK and the rest of Europe.

As we stated in 2017, we are opposed to any deal for a long-term relationship with the EU that focuses narrowly on trade, without a strong social dimension. All trade deals that cover the UK must provide for enhanced labour rights and protection for public services. We reject a vision of free trade that does not include fair trade, deregulates employment, food, consumer and environmental standards; offers up public services like the NHS to rapacious multinational companies; and undermines UK sovereignty by giving foreign investors privileged rights to sue democratically-elected governments for acting in the interests of working people.  We reject corporate focused trade deals such as those being proposed by the government with Australia, New Zealand, the USA and the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, and together with trade unions in the relevant countries we will oppose such deals.

In the face of so much instability and mistrust in the ability of politicians to deliver, it comes as no surprise that polls show a growing number of people want a say on the Brexit deal. Whether that’s through a meaningful vote in parliament, an early general election or a popular vote on the terms of Brexit, it is essential that the Brexit deal secures the confidence and support of the country. 

 

Given the real risk of a collapse in the talks, or a deal that does not deliver on the TUC’s priorities, whilst respecting the result of the 2016 referendum to leave the European Union, we do not rule out the possibility of campaigning for people to have a final say on the Brexit deal through a popular vote. 

A better future for working people  

The TUC’s ambitions for a more equal, more prosperous country do not stop with a Brexit deal that protects jobs, rights at work and peace in Northern Ireland. Working people need a new deal.

Many people voted for Brexit to hit back at a political elite that has inflicted austerity on communities all over the UK and has created an economy where good jobs are being stripped out of too many places and apprenticeships alongside other opportunities for good secure jobs for young people have nosedived. We share these concerns. The trade union movement has a responsibility to unify all workers whether they voted leave or remain and the best way of achieving this is to directly link the fight for a new deal for workers in the UK.

Getting the best possible Brexit deal must be accompanied by a national recovery plan to bring more good jobs to communities across the country. That means funding our public services properly, political intervention in the economy, growing investment and restoring public ownership of key industries. It means getting wages rising again – and cracking down on the disastrous spread of insecure work that leaves people trapped in poverty and vulnerable to exploitation. It means banning zero hours and other exploitative contracts. It means building the infrastructure we need for the twenty-first century – and stopping rampant profiteering by bringing public services and utilities back into public ownership. Above all, it means tackling the inequalities within and between regions and nations after decades of unregulated globalization and deindustrialisation.

We need a government with a plan to put working people first. And that starts with getting the right Brexit deal - one that protects workers’ rights and helps create more good jobs – as we start to rebuild the UK in the interests of working people and their communities.