Clean up our rivers, seas and politics – re-join the EU
On Friday April 21, the Guardian reported the cancellation of plans to plant a new woodland in Greater Manchester after it was discovered that raw sewage leaks had rendered the land too toxic for the trees, as well as a risk to human health. Local officials had hoped the project would improve the environment, provide green space and encourage wildlife habitats. It was just the latest in a series of scandals involving privatised water companies and raw sewage discharges. On 11 April, the Guardian carried another article pointing out, among other things, that in 2022 Anglian Water, which had one of the worst pollution records in England, had given its boss more than £1 million in pay and bonuses. Meanwhile, Environmental Agency data showed 141,777 sewage-dumping events on the coasts of England and Wales in 2022.
What does this have to do with the EU?
The connection with the EU is that prior to Brexit, most of the relevant UK legislation came from EU environmental law, which, from water and air quality to nature conservation and climate change, is renowned as among the world’s strongest. Laws to clean up dirty beaches, for example, were widely regarded as one of the EU’s key achievements.
It was therefore apparent from the start that Brexit risked setting the UK back on environmental protections:
- The EU Court of Justice had played a leading role in enforcing environmental laws and ensuring they were implemented by member states. Yet the Withdrawal Agreement Act had contained a clause giving ministers the power to authorise any UK court to overturn judgements of the European Court, meaning existing interpretations of environmental law could be changed or challenged.
- Before the 2016 referendum, agriculture minister George Eustice promised voting Leave would mean removing what he called ‘spirit-crushing’ environmental directives along with environmental policy-making’s ‘precautionary principle’, which allows authorities to limit or ban activities until their promoters can demonstrate they’re safe. Instead, Eustice favoured the opposite US-style, ‘risk-based’ approach, allowing any activity to go ahead until authorities can unequivocally show they are dangerous. The precautionary principle had underpinned bans on harmful chemicals and insecticides linked to bee-colony declines, among other things.
So what has happened in environmental protection since UK left EU?
Firstly, the Trade & Co-operation (TCA) agreement launched at the end of 2020 to govern UK-EU trading relations after the UK left the single market commits the parties to maintaining environmental-protection levels in place beforehand. It also introduces a mechanism whereby a party can take appropriate re-balancing measures to offset any (adverse) ‘material impacts on trade or investment’ arising from ‘significant divergences’ between them.
Secondly, the November 2021 Environment Act introduced a new legal framework for environmental protection to replace that of the EU post-Brexit and included provision for an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) to replace the environmental protection functions of the EU by providing oversight of the Government’s environmental progress.
So there’s nothing to worry about, then?
Not exactly. For one thing, the weakening of environmental protection can be challenged under the TCA only if it takes place ‘in a manner affecting’ trade and investment, thus narrowing the scope of protection to ensuring merely that neither side undercuts the other in trade.
Secondly, concerns have been raised that the OEP is insufficiently independent from government and provides no legal remedies, equivalent to those available under EU law, for breaches of environmental legislation.
Third, the Government’s Retained EU Law (REUL) Bill could potentially remove key environmental protections. In essence, when the UK left the EU, the Withdrawal Agreement Act converted into UK law the large volume of EU legislation that applied when the UK was still a member to prevent a sudden legal vacuum arising, along with the obvious ensuing disruption and chaos. Now, through the REUL Bill, the Government wants to be able simply to delete as much of this retained legislation as it sees fit, on its own authority without needing prior parliamentary approval: an astonishing transfer of legislative power from Parliament to the executive. So much for taking back control!
What should we do?
Labour has introduced a private member’s bill that includes proposals automatically to fine companies for sewage dumping and implement legally binding reduction targets, but by its own admission would not curb sewage discharges until 2030 – and even then not all of them.
The problem is the regulatory regime itself, including an Environment Agency with insufficient resources and an OEP lacking teeth. This has meant that for the past 30 years, tackling river and beach cleanliness has, as Andrew Adonis pointed out, ‘been driven by the EU in the face of constant foot-dragging by British governments too influenced by the lobbying of dirty industry and the privatised water companies’.
Now, with the prospect, on top of all that, of the REUL Bill becoming law, we cannot but agree with him that ‘re-entering the EU is a massive opportunity for our environment, the upside is enormous’.
We need to re-join Erasmus+
After the UK left the EU on 31 January 2020, it decided to leave the union’s Erasmus+ programme, which had allowed students to work and study abroad in one of the scheme’s 32 participating nations. Strictly speaking, the decision was not actually due to Brexit – or at least not an automatic consequence – since the Government could have decided to continue participating, as an associated third country, as do Iceland, Norway and Turkey, for example. From one point of view, this is good: not being linked to the rest of Brexit means that, in practical terms, the decision should be relatively simple to reverse. It should also be simple to reverse politically, as in principle one does not have to support reversing Brexit to re-join Erasmus+. Therefore, we hope we can build up a head of steam for a campaign to bring about just such a change and will be watching the opposition parties closely for their positions on the issue at the next election.
So why was Erasmus+ ditched?
The Government, reversing an earlier promise, said participation was too expensive, claiming the UK was a net contributor to Europe’s higher education economy because the UK received twice as many students as it sent away.
This, we think, is short-sighted, even in its own terms. This is because it fails to include in its calculations the money that flowed back to the UK via the contributions to the UK economy of the Erasmus+ students while they were here and the contributions that participation in the scheme made to development of the students’ home economies and therefore to UK export markets. It also failed to take account of the productivity gains from the professional development opportunities available to outgoing students through the programme.
But more importantly, it fits Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, for it ignores the fact that the scheme enriches the lives of home students by enabling them to share lessons and interact with those from abroad. It was, as Nicola Sturgeon put it, a case of “cultural vandalism”.
What, then, has replaced the Erasmus+ scheme?
Students wishing to make use of funding for international experiences have had to make use of the Government’s Turing scheme. This began funding study abroad opportunities for UK-based students in the autumn of 2021 and was designed to fill some of holes left by departure from the Erasmus+ scheme.
How does it compare with Erasmus+?
Poorly, is the short answer. It only funds outgoing students and provides no funding for those wishing to come to study in the UK.
The Government claimed Turing would better support students from disadvantaged backgrounds than Erasmus+, but this can be disputed. Since it finances travel across the world rather than Europe as Erasmus+ did, there have been more applicants and therefore the funding available per student has been reduced.
Funding for paid internships is no longer available and other components of Erasmus+, such as opportunities for researchers and cross-institutional linkages, are entirely missing from Turing.
Under Erasmus+, participating states paid into the scheme to enable tuition fees to be waived for incoming and outgoing students due to reciprocity between participating institutions. Under Turing, institutions can still facilitate tuition-free exchanges by means of agreements between them. But importantly, Erasmus+ was a legal framework as well as a funding agreement, whereas Turing provides only the latter – meaning exchange agreements under it are much more time-consuming and difficult to achieve.
The UK has scaled funding backwards, whereas the EU has increased its budget for the 2021-2027 Erasmus+ funding round by 56%: additional support the UK would have benefited from, had it been an EU member state.
Conclusion – we need to re-join Erasmus
The lost opportunities are likely severely to hamper UK students’ professional development – disadvantaging them in the job market and leaving them culturally impoverished – and to hit the UK economy, European integration and cross-national understanding. In early 2021, over 100 MEPs signed a letter urging the Commission to allow Scotland and Wales back in – an appeal rejected on the basis that only sovereign countries can be members. Nevertheless, the EU has indicated a willingness to re-open negotiations. Let us build the pressure for a positive UK response. As a start, please sign our petition at https://actionstorm.org/petitions/stop-brexit-dogma-destroying-erasmus-study-rights-sign-our-petition-now-62068c8633462?
New UK trade pacts are a poor substitute for EU deals
On Friday, 31 March, the UK government announced that it would join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), claiming that doing so would unlock access for UK firms to a dynamic and growing group of Pacific economies. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the agreement of the 11 CPTPP member countries to allow the UK to join, demonstrated “the real economic benefits of our post-Brexit freedoms”.
Someone might have advised Sunak not to make that remark. By linking the agreement to Brexit, he kept high the profile of Brexit as a political issue (something he, presumably, would wish people didn’t think about, considering a growing majority perceive it as having had a negative impact on the country). And he in effect invited Rejoiners to point out that the agreement in no way in no way compensates for the 4% GDP reduction caused by leaving the EU single market. It also prompted some Brexiters to claim it would make it more difficult or impossible to re-join the EU – an incorrect assertion as the agreement allows its signatories to leave after giving six months’ notice (see video).
It was no wonder that trade secretary, Kemi Badenoch, was out doing a media round on Friday morning urging journalists “not to keep talking” about Brexit. After all, the gaffe-prone PM’s remark was reminiscent of one he’d made about the Windsor Framework. Then he’d said that Northern Ireland was “an incredibly attractive place to invest for business” because it had access both “to the UK and EU markets” – leading anti-Brexiters to ask the obvious question: “Then why can’t the rest of the UK also be part of the EU single market?”
So what is the CPTPP? To what extent do the Government’s claims for it stack up? What are its disadvantages?
What is the CPTPP?
It is a trade agreement between 11 countries – Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam – meaning that it cuts tariffs on UK exports to a group of countries that, with the UK, have a combined GDP of £11 trillion: 15% of the world’s total according to UK officials.
So that’s a good thing, yes?
Not exactly. The UK already had trade deals with the majority of CPTPP countries as an EU member state, so the gains – around 0.08% of GDP over ten years – are expected to be tiny.
And the CPTPP, unlike the EU, is not a single market so trade will not be frictionless: manufacturers will still have to meet “rules of origin” tests.
What are the downsides?
In return for tariff-free access for UK exporters, the UK has had to reciprocate – meaning, among other things, lower tariffs on Malaysian palm oil, whose production is widely blamed for deforestation.
But perhaps the worst thing is the provision the CPTPP makes for investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS): a mechanism allowing foreign investors to bring a claim against a host state that is party to the agreement, in international tribunals, for supposed breaches of their obligations under the agreement. ISDS has become notorious for elevating international capital to the legal status of a nation state, allowing it to use the mechanism to prevent governments from passing legislation addressing legitimate public concerns. No wonder that the TUC general secretary has said the agreement could put at risk increases in the minimum wage, while reinforcing the exploitation of workers in Vietnam and Brunei “where independent unions are banned, and Malaysia where migrant workers are subject to forced labour”. In contrast, the EU protects workers’ rights – as our policy brief on the topic (below) explains.
What’s the conclusion?
In short, like other trade deals concluded since Brexit, this deal is a poor alternative to EU membership and is motivated more by this desperate government’s short-term political need to show it is “making Brexit work” than by any genuine economic imperative. If we really needed to improve trade links with our friends and partners in Asia-Pacific countries, we would be better off doing it as part of a bigger bloc with the clout to achieve a better, more economically advantageous and more socially and environmentally beneficial outcome. Namely, the EU.
Labour’s five-point Brexit plan won’t make it work
(Labour plan is in light text; Rejoin EU Party responses are in bold)
Point 1 – Sort out the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Sorting out the Northern Ireland Protocol must be the starting point to make Brexit work. Agreement here can be the springboard to securing a better deal for the British people. There is a clear landing zone to a deal. Instead, [the government’s] only plan is to stoke up old Brexit divisions. We must move on.
The only stable solutions for Northern Ireland are: either the UK re-joins the EU, or there is Irish unification. Irish unification or even any half-way-house which retains – as the NIP lays down – adjudication by the European Court of Justice will be a precedent for Scotland in its seeking independence. Indeed, any softening of Brexit will strengthen the SNP’s hand, since it will make independence and joining the EU economically easier, by lessening the future trade barriers between England and an independent Scotland. Labour risks becoming the party which loses Scotland. There is no landing zone, unless one is prepared to boost Scottish independence and have UK troops on the ground in NI protecting customs installations. The government just doesn’t want one, also as a result of ECJ involvement and the implications for Scotland. Labour’s plan ignores the only solution which will preserve the United Kingdom: reversing Brexit completely.
Labour will seek a new veterinary agreement for trade in agri-products between the UK and EU. Something countries like New Zealand and Canada already have in place. This would eliminate most checks created by the Tories’ Brexit deal between the British and Northern Ireland border. For all other goods, we will work with business in Northern Ireland to put in place an enhanced and specialised trusted-trader scheme to allow low-risk goods entering Northern Ireland without unnecessary checks.
Are we talking about food/animal exports to the EU, or imports from the EU? The latter are more important. Both would be facilitated by a veterinary agreement, but this would mean complying with EU standards without any influence over future modifications and accepting adjudication by the ECJ. The only way to have a part in deciding such regulations and having judges in the ECJ is to fully re-join the EU.
Point 2 – Tear down unnecessary trade barriers.
Labour would extend the new veterinary agreement to cover all the UK, which would tear down barriers for our agri-product exporters. We would seek to agree mutual recognition of conformity assessments across specified sectors so our producers no longer need to complete two sets of tests, or two processes of certification, to sell their goods in both the UK and the EU.
There were no forms before Brexit. At the moment, we’re not checking any imports from the EU as we are obliged to do under the Trade & Co-operation Agreement with the EU and World Trade Organisation rules, having constantly put that off, not least because it will push up food prices. Having conformity agreements would ease that burden when it comes, as it would help exporters, but it will only be on the basis of our accepting whatever regulations the EU sets and ultimate ECJ adjudication. The only way to avoid that is to fully re-join the EU.
Labour has no intention from diverging standards below current levels, so agreeing these common standards will not only help our exporters but create a safety net to ensure our food standards are world-leading.
Labour doesn’t support the return of freedom of movement. However, we will seek to find new flexible labour mobility arrangements for those making short-term work trips and for musicians and artists seeking short-term visas to tour within the EU.
We would have to pay for this as the advantages for us are greater than to them, so a contribution to EU cultural budgets would be required in some form. The only way to avoid this is to fully re-join the EU.
Point 3 – Support our world-leading services and scientists.
Labour will seek mutual recognition of professional qualifications to enable our world-leading service industries to do business in the EU.
Only really relevant and significant if there is freedom of movement, which Labour rejects. FOM is an essential reason for re-joining the EU, but is an argument best considered in the category of immigration policy.
Labour will maintain Britain’s data-adequacy status, meaning our data protection rules are deemed equivalent to those in the EU, enabling UK digital services companies to compete.
GDPR is very important for our businesses, but again will probably require a financial contribution eventually as new regulations are formulated and policed as the advantages are greater for us than for them. Moreover, those modifications will be decided by them not us and be ultimately justiciable by the ECJ, where we no longer have judges. The only way we could have a part in deciding such modifications and could have judges in the ECJ is by re-joining the EU.
We will not seek regulatory equivalence for financial services as that could constrain our ability to make our rules and system work better.
Pretty awful for the City and tax revenue over time. The core of our financial service-based economy is at risk. Ultimately the only way to be a major financial services hub in this time zone is to join the euro, which we would have to commit to do eventually in re-joining the EU. You might think it prudent not to say that yet, although it’s the truth and will have to be faced sooner or later. Having said that, the euro has proved itself as a stable currency that other countries have benefited from by joining and the negative narrative that surrounds it in the UK is neither accurate nor justified.
However, Labour will make sure Britain’s world-leading scientists are not missing out by giving our researchers access to funding and vital cross border research programmes.
There is a growing lobby of continental universities and institutes for advanced studies getting grants and projects now we’re out, who’ll be seeking to keep it that way, draining away our skills and critical mass of research capacity. For example, the notion that solving the NIP (if that happens) will seamlessly lead to our re-joining Horizon is very optimistic.
Point 4 – Keep Britain safe.
There is no reason why leaving the EU should weaken our security capabilities. Bad relations, lack of trust and failure to secure cross-border and security measures in the Brexit deal are doing just that.
At a time when European security is under threat, we must strengthen our security co-operation with trusted allies.
Labour will seek a new security pact with the EU to defend our borders, by allowing us to share data, intelligence and best practice. We cannot take risks with terrorism, organised crime and people trafficking. Labour will seek to set up joint intelligence working to boost capabilities in Britain and the bloc.
Is Labour ready to pay for this access to EU law enforcement, which benefits us more than them? Have you asked the US and other major security players if they are happy with such intelligence sharing? Inside the EU, we had a waiver which lapsed with Brexit.
And we will seek to create new models of joint working with EU and other countries to combat cyber-attacks and the spread of state-sponsored disinformation.
In any such co-operation, the US-EU partnership will be key. We’ll be making the coffee whilst they confer.
Point 5 – Invest in Britain
Labour will use green investment and a commitment to buy, make and sell in Britain to ensure we are best placed to compete on a global stage.
So we want more trade with the EU, but expect it to welcome a “Buy British” preference regime? Good luck with that.
Labour will embrace global trade outside the EU. Labour wants Britain to lead the way in developing a new global trade approach that puts people, communities, rights, and standards at its very heart.
If you are to grow your trade at all while not restoring British trade with the EU, the share of business you’ll be doing with countries whose governments don’t put people, communities, rights and standards “at the very heart” of their policies will go through the roof. The commercial prostitution we already have towards the Gulf, for example will look like a picnic. The only solution: re-join the EU.
The Government has missed Brexit opportunities in the past 18 months, including cutting VAT on energy bills.
Cutting VAT is a very bad way to deal with a spike in energy prices, which is why even this government, a champion in mismanagement, has not adopted it. A used postage stamp for you on which to list the other Brexit opportunities, including ones we have not missed.
Labour will use flexibility outside the EU to ensure British regulation is adapted to suit British needs.
If you have separate British regulations from international standards, which are increasingly set by the EU, US and China, you will merely add to costs. If you’re not an international rule-maker, you are a rule-taker.
As an example, we’ll change rules on insurance, which are currently taken directly from EU regulations, to allow British pension savers to own and build British infrastructure.
The recent vulnerability of pension funds in the gilt market has shown anything which encourages them into investments which may be less sound and influenced by factors other than pure financial prudence is not a good idea. This is not a ‘Brexit benefit’.
Protect and improve rights and freedoms – re-join the EU
What were we promised in 2016?
During the negotiations leading up to the Withdrawal Agreement, Theresa May promised that EU law protecting workers’ rights would be transposed into UK domestic law to ensure continuity and said: “Existing workers’ legal rights will continue to be guaranteed in law – and they will be guaranteed as long as I am Prime Minister”.
What are we actually getting?
With the signing of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) at the end of 2020, it was widely assumed that its inclusion of ‘level-playing-field’ commitments meant that substantial changes to workers’ rights in the UK were unlikely. Yet just days later, business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, announced that the Government would review how employment law could be changed in light of Brexit; and the Queen’s Speech in May included the announcement that a ‘Brexit Freedoms Bill’ will make legislation that has remained on the statute book through the Brexit process easier to amend.
What can we do about it?
As the massive harm caused by Brexit becomes increasingly apparent, we need to build public support for getting our freedoms back by re-joining the EU. We do this by taking advantage of the considerable power that the ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system gives small parties, like the Rejoin EU Party, to influence public policy by taking votes from the two best-placed candidates and so influencing election outcomes.
What can we expect under a pro-Brexit government?
Under a pro-Brexit government, workers’ rights and democratic freedoms generally will likely be eroded. In 2012, Liz Truss and others wrote Britannia Unchained, in which they argued that Britons were ‘among the worst idlers’ in the world, claiming that a generous welfare system had fuelled laziness; that employment law offered excessive protections and that the definition of fair dismissal should be widened. Rishi Sunak has said that he would ‘turn off’ all retained EU law by the next election and, not to be outdone, Truss has said she would do so by next year.
What can we expect under Labour/Lib Dems?
Labour has wholly embraced Brexit, setting out what it calls a ‘Five-point Plan to Make Brexit Work’ (see above). Keir Starmer has said: “Under Labour, Britain will not go back into the EU. We will not be joining the single market. We will not be joining a customs union”. The Liberal Democrats’ official position is less hostile to UK membership of the EU, but they too have explicitly rejected ‘an immediate campaign to reverse Brexit’.
What would we get as an EU Member State?
As an EU Member State we would get
- the guarantees contained in the EU treaties, which stipulate that the core values of the Union include the achievement of ‘full employment and social progress’, combating ‘social exclusion and discrimination’ and promoting ‘social justice and protection’;
- the benefits of ‘directives’ (setting out goals such as improved workplace health and safety provision) and ‘regulations’ (concerning e.g. better access to occupational pensions for temporary staff) directly applicable throughout the Union;
- access to the ECJ’s case law establishing, for example, that paying part-time workers who are mainly women lower hourly rates than full-timers is an indirect form of sex discrimination and therefore illegal.
Scrap the Retained EU Law Bill to protect rights
The Government published its Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill on September 22, 2022.
Under the Bill, the majority of retained EU law contained in domestic secondary legislation and retained direct EU legislation will expire on 31st December 2023, unless otherwise preserved.
The Government says there is “no place for EU law concepts in our statute book” and that the Bill is being brought forward “to fully realise the opportunities of Brexit”. See gov.uk pages on the Bill for more detail.
Key statutory instruments relating to employment and workers’ rights could vanish if the Government decides not to retain them. Entitlements as important as paid holiday, rest breaks and protection from part-time work discrimination.
Rejoin EU Party leader Richard Hewison has spoken to a concerned working parent, who has been following the developments, about what this might mean for us all….
Richard: Thank you for talking to me. You wanted to raise awareness about an event that’s pretty seismic but that barely got any press attention last week? As a working parent, you have been following this?
Concerned working parent: Yes, that’s right. The government published the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill on Thursday.
Richard: Tell us more
Concerned working parent: Under the Bill, any retained EU law is going to expire on 31 December 2023 unless the government retains or replaces it.
Richard: What concerns you most about this?
Concerned working parent: We are talking about some key employment and worker rights such as:
The Working Time Regulations
The Part-time Worker Regulations
The Fixed term Employee Regulations
Richard: What do these do?
Concerned working parent: Well, for instance, the Working Time Regulations 1998 are a critical piece of health and safety legislation guaranteeing limits on weekly working hours, night work limits, rest breaks and 5.6 weeks of paid holiday a year (including bank holidays).
The Part-time working Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2000 protect part-timers from being treated less favourably than equivalent full-time workers just because they’re part-time. So for instance, it entitles them to the same pay rates, albeit that they would be paid for fewer hours.
Apparently the Bill also affects Article 157 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the EU. This underpins equal pay for women. The Equality Act should preserve those rights going forward, but of course only as long as that remains in place.
Richard: Which pieces of legislation do you think the Government will quietly let go?
Concerned working parent: It’s not clear yet what the government is going to retain or allow to expire. Perhaps they are testing the Public’s reaction. But bear in mind that legislation that is not explicitly reinstated or replaced with an alternative will go, leaving no protection.
Richard: Why do you think they are doing this?
Concerned working parent: They seem to think this will boost growth and innovation but the changes are going to have a profound effect on workers like me and on families.
For instance, many women work part-time and could lose protection against discrimination if the part-time worker regulations are allowed to expire.
Further taking away paid holiday is going to discourage many people from taking leave, leading to health problems in the long term. Also, many families rely on paid holiday to look after young children in the school holidays.
And of course, removing any limits on a working week could lead to real abuse by bad employers – longer working days, lack of rest. I imagine this will result in increased stress and physical health issues in the long-term.
Richard: Do you think there’s a chance that the government might replace these laws with something better?
Concerned working parent: I don’t think that’s possible. The new Bill is drafted so that any replacement legislation cannot increase the regulatory burden. So it seems we are on a downward trajectory only.
You also have to bear in mind that they have been promising to introduce a new Employment Bill for a couple of years now following the Good work: Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices. It was meant to protect and enhance workers’ rights as the UK leaves the EU, making Britain the best place to work in the world. In particular it was meant to improve the situation for people in the gig economy – on variable hours contracts. But that bill has now been dropped.
Richard: It’s all very concerning. It seems we can expect a future of de-regulation and potential discrimination. Of course if we had remained in the EU, there wouldn’t have been the impetus to remove this legislation.
Concerned working parent: Probably not as much as European laws and directives underpinned it.
If you are concerned about this and would like to know more, please sign up as a supporter, subscribe to our mailing list and vote for us in forthcoming elections. Also see the gov.uk pages on the Bill and helpful publicly available legal update.