As Shadow Foreign Minister with responsibility for Europe, this is the first of a series of regular updates I intend to provide on my website on progress with the Brexit negotiations. I know it’s a matter of much interest for many people here in Hornsey & Wood Green.
My main responsibility as Shadow Europe Minister is the future relationship and how we work together with our European friends and allies in the years ahead, rather than the Brexit negotiations which are being handled by my colleague Rachel Reeves in her role shadowing Michael Gove.
I thought for this first update, it would be helpful to focus on where we are now. With Covid-19 taking up so much of the news, this hasn’t been getting as much attention as it undoubtedly should. We’re already facing a huge economic impact from Covid-19. There are devastating predictions of job losses in the UK and yet we risk making this desperate situation even worse with tariffs and barriers to trade with our biggest market.
My views on leaving the European Union are well known, but our priority now has to be getting the best possible deal for this country which:
- protects jobs and the economy through trade deals for goods and services which minimise disruption to business
- maintains the security of the UK by retaining existing co-operation as far as is possible.
- respects the Good Friday Agreement in line with the Northern Ireland Protocol.
- enables continued collaboration in areas of mutual benefit, such as health and research.
Any deal should be based on a close economic relationship and alignment on protections for workers, consumers and the environment.
So, where are we now?
The Tories still say they will have a deal by the end of the year, and Labour will certainly be holding them to that. But it doesn’t bode well that negotiations have been cut back during the Covid-19 pandemic and that negotiators have so far failed to make any significant progress.
The deadline for agreeing an extension to the transition period is 1 July 2020. Originally there was supposed to be around 10 negotiating rounds before a June summit, but Covid-19 disruption has reduced that to three meetings (the latter two virtually) with only one more planned before the June conference.
It certainly doesn’t feel from reports coming out of the meetings that we’re any closer to an agreement. There remain significant differences between the UK and the EU on key areas including fisheries, criminal justice and judicial co-operation and governance.
We’re hearing nothing from the Prime Minister, despite his promise to keep Parliament fully informed and despite repeated requests, David Frost, the UK’s Chief Negotiator hasn’t appeared at the Future EU Relations Committee to face questions.
The Tories made a lot of promises in the General Election about their “oven ready” deal and said that they wouldn’t compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards into law. Yet, unsurprisingly, this isn’t what we’re seeing so far.
I’m particularly concerned about:
The rights of EU citizens
Throughout the whole Brexit process, this Government hasn’t stood up for the 3 million EU citizens who have made the UK their home. Prejudice and division has been stoked for years and at the same time as clapping carers on a Thursday evening, the Government has pushed through an Immigration Bill that suggests people are low skilled and unwelcome. There are also concerning reports of people with pre-settled status facing discrimination applying for Universal Credit.
It’s shameful and I’ll always defend the rights of EU citizens to ensure they continue to enjoy the same rights and benefits after Brexit. I’m concerned that Covid-19 has disrupted the settled status application process and that a large number of people won’t have registered by the deadline. The helpline has closed and documents aren’t being accepted by post. The Home Office Minister has confirmed that it’s taking longer to process applications. I’d like to see the deadline extended.
Last week, the Governmentrefused to back amendments to the Agriculture Bill which would have enshrined high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards into law. The very next day, the Trade Secretary Liz Truss suggested she’d offer reduced tariffs on US agricultural imports, which the Government’s own DEFRA Secretary has warned could be the “thin edge of the wedge”, leading to further UK concessions on animal welfare standards. This is a serious concern, and something many hundreds of constituents have contacted me about. We must at the very least maintain animal welfare and food standards – personally, I’d like to see us improve them.
The TUC is right to warn of the rights for our employment rights and protections for public services. Given the huge impact that Brexit could have on workers’ rights and protections, I want to see the Government meeting regularly with the TUC to discuss these issues and reach agreements.
The Government has been rolling back on its commitment to implement the ECHR in UK legislation. That’s concerning in its own right but also risks the UK losing internal security co-operation as the EU has been very clear that if the UK repeals or amends the Human Rights Act any co-operation on internal security would be suspended.
We’ve already seen ambitions for a security partnership rolled back from even what Theresa May sought. The UK won’t seek to participate in the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) which allows for the fast extradition of a criminal suspect from any EU member state and Michael Gove has suggested that any new arrangements won’t necessarily be in place by the end of the year. That’s a problem because without a comprehensive agreement, extradition would be slower and more bureaucratic; law enforcement agencies would find it harder to get crucial information for their investigations, as UK authorities will lose access to huge EU-wide databases like SIS II; and it would be more difficult for UK investigators and prosecutors to collaborate with EU partners.
Boris Johnson told businesses in Northern Ireland during the election that if any of them were asked to fill in extra paperwork, they should telephone the prime minister “and I will direct them to throw that form in the bin”. We knew that wasn’t true then and that’s been proved to be the case. The Government has written to the Executive Office in Stormont confirming that there will need to be checks on goods, with border control posts in three ports in Belfast, Warrenpoint and Larne. Businesses need the details of these new arrangements so they can plan.
This week we await the publication of all legal texts and I’ll be following this closely.