THE first thing to say about the UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement with the EU is that it was a treaty negotiated by a Conservative government — not a Labour government. Certainly not by a progressive Labour government.
But a Conservative government dominated by neoliberal, free-market objectives and ambitions, particularly those of banking and finance.
To emphasise this point further, it is worth considering how a progressive Labour government might have tackled the negotiations — as, for instance, one elected on the basis of Labour’s most recent (2019) election programme.
To have been true to this manifesto, Labour’s negotiators would have needed to have given priority to the collective rights of working people: trade union representatives on company boards and the restoration of the democratic rights of regional and Scottish and Welsh national governments to provide financial aid to halt closures.
More proactively, it would have required powers at regional level for comprehensive public investment in new centres of excellence in manufacturing and services.
Labour’s negotiators would also have been required to fight for the direct legal rights of workers: to have challenged existing EU law by which EU firms have the “right of establishment” to employ workers on minimum conditions and not those negotiated locally through collective bargaining.
They might, on grounds of equivalence, have demanded that the EU operate standards in line with those demanded by the European TUC, that it reverse its drive to minimise collective bargaining, stop using unemployment as its economic regulator, give workers the same health and safety rights as those in Britain’s 1974 Health and Safety Act and bring pension rights and hours of work legislation back into line with the best of those achieved nationally in the 1970s.
It might even, on grounds of competitive fairness, have called for a halt to the use of EU aid to require national governments to adopt “reform programmes” degrading workers’ conditions, privatising utilities and opening the public sector services to competition.
To have done so would have doubtless somewhat ruffled the suave and ambitious Gaullist politician Michel Barnier.
But it would have given hope, and a voice, to the millions of workers across Europe who have seen their lives and communities wrecked by years of neoliberal austerity and the creation of a “level playing field” that only benefits the biggest of German and French monopolies.
However, it was a Conservative government that negotiated the deal — and it is now law.
How should the left and the labour movement respond?
The first point to stress is that the agreement is incomplete. There is more to negotiate.
This is particularly so for a key section of the agreement: that on financial services.
So far this simply ratifies the status quo.
But this is not what the City of London, and particularly the US and Swiss banks, want.
Their aim is to secure a relaxation of recent (2014) EU regulations in order to permit levels of gearing and commercial freedom that will enable the City to enlarge its share of the biggest global market.
This is that outside the EU among the wealth holders in the US, Singapore and the Far East.
This part of the agreement is to be negotiated over the coming year.
The second point is that there are provisions for the agreement’s review, not just for the damaging deal on fisheries but more generally.
The third point is more directly political. We face a wider economic crisis of unprecedented proportions, one which is hitting impoverished regions most heavily because of the pre-existing damage done to their social and economic infrastructures over the past decade.
Johnson has indeed proclaimed his intention to “level up” and we may expect him to be noisily interventionist.
But how? He lacks the tools to do so.
As with the response to Covid-19, his only resort will be to the giant private-sector contracting companies that are already being awarded contracts for grandiose infrastructure projects. For true economic regeneration there will be nothing.
The government has already robbed the Scottish and Welsh and, prospectively, the English regions of any powers of democratic intervention through the UK Single Market Act.
This has now been hardwired into the new agreement with the EU: no local content conditions for contractors, no powers to refinance bankrupted companies, no power to “distort competition” and no “state aid” except on terms that invite retaliation.
Johnson’s only response will be more of the same: neoliberal deregulation.
His legislation for “free ports” is already on the statute book and the Institute of Directors is now calling for a further cutting of “red tape.” Johnson’s contractors will be happy.
But will working people? The current crisis is even more savage than that of 2008.
Unemployment is double what it was. The government is already talking about the necessity of tax rises and further cuts in public services, particularly for local government.
Sooner or later inflation will be used to erode government debt — and wages.
In face of this crisis the forces of opposition are already in place — at least potentially.
There are parliaments in Scotland and Wales that the government does not control. The coming elections will provide an opportunity to raise the real issues of economic development.
The same applies to the English regions. Still more important there is a trade union movement, now growing in size, that has again demonstrated its workplace (and community) power in the fight against Covid-19.
And, as the false polarisations that have divided working people over the past decade subside, the class politics of both the EU and Johnson are there for all to see.
There is, therefore, the opportunity to win a much deeper understanding of the disastrous economic and political power exercised by the very rich, and by their banks and investment companies, and to build a mass movement against it.
On this basis a future left government could seek to modify Johnson’s deal in ways that would benefit working people in Britain — and also provide a lever for progressive change for use by working people in France, Spain, Portugal and across Europe.