A door closed yesterday on good sense and careful planning. This government is now hell-bent on rushing the UK’s final departure from the EU and nothing, let alone a global pandemic, is going to stand in its way.
We have had four years of negotiations to reach a considered, mutually beneficial EU trade deal, with little progress. The Brexit zealots in control of government now think they can achieve everything they want, with no trade-offs, in fewer than six months. Even if this were achieved, it would mean negotiations which will set our relationship with our closest neighbours for the next generation are being rushed through – not in a spirit of compromise, but in a reckless game of chicken.
With so much still to be agreed, we should be devoting all our efforts to securing a deal with the EU. Instead, the government has handed our chief UK negotiator another job as national security adviser. The snub to the EU couldn’t be more pointed.
Given the very real possibility of failing to reach a deal by the end of December, we now face the very real prospect of crashing out at the end of this year in a no-deal Brexit – an outcome opposed by manufacturers, farmers, the TUC, the CBI, the Bank of England, pharmaceutical companies and logistics companies, because of the huge damage it would cause to the UK’s economy.
The UK’s reputation for good governance has been shattered and I see no sign that it will recover anytime soon.
But we face losing more than just our international reputation for stable institutions; that, sadly, went months ago. Many of the rights and protections we’ve taken for granted are now at risk, ready to be discarded by a government in pursuit of whatever trade deals it can secure with any country or region – as long as it’s not the EU.
It’s easy to forget that Britain was once notorious as the “dirty man of Europe” with polluted air, raw sewage pumped into the sea and protected sites being lost. EU laws and the threat of fines have been essential in moving us in the right direction, though our environment remains under extreme stress.
For all Boris Johnson’s promises of making the UK “the cleanest, greenest [country] on Earth”, protections are now being steadily dumped, putting habitats, rivers and ecosystems all at risk. There’s an environment bill working its way through parliament, but it provides nothing like the protections we’ve had as members of the EU, and the proposed watchdog is a toothless lapdog.
The prime minister boasts of the UK’s climate leadership, and the UK is preparing to host the crucial UN climate summit next year, so you would think a commitment to the aims of the Paris Agreement would be a minimum requirement. Yet the UK has refused any mention of adherence to the agreement in any trade deal and with MPs denied any oversight on trade deals (unlike MEPs), there is little that parliament can do about it.
But that’s not all. It’s hard to know what ministers’ position is on food standards and animal welfare because they don’t seem to know themselves. One moment, the trade secretary Liz Truss is saying there will be no dilution of UK standards, the next her cabinet colleague Penny Mordaunt says it will left to the consumer to decide. So is that a yes to chlorinated chicken, then?
We rightly ask our farmers to meet strict standards on animal welfare, environmental protection and public health so it is completely unacceptable that they should then be undermined by cheap competition from countries which don’t adhere to those standards. The wriggling by ministers on this issue doesn’t reassure me, and it shouldn’t reassure farmers either. It also distracts from other equally important environmental issues over farming, such as the use of antibiotics and pesticides, and the need to maintain environmental standards to protect wildlife.
Under EU law, limits on working hours, annual leave, equal pay, maternity rights have all been protected. When that protection vanishes, they are vulnerable to a right-wing government sweeping them away in a bonfire of regulation. If the government were committed to retaining them, it would agree to the level playing field provisions the EU is calling for. Its obstinacy on this speaks volumes.
Right now, about 65,000 NHS staff come from the EU. Our cherished health service could not deliver the care we want in normal times, let alone in a pandemic, without them.
Brexit has already led to a staggering 90 per cent collapse in nurses from Europe coming to the UK – and it took a concerted campaign to stop the unfair and discriminatory NHS surcharge being imposed on overseas staff. The NHS still faces serious staff shortages. The points-based immigration system is not going to resolve them.
Coronavirus has acted as a stark warning that health crises do not respect national boundaries, and medical research is best carried out across borders. We have already lost the European Medicines Agency, which has relocated to Amsterdam. There is no certainty that we will even continue to participate in it, nor the European Centre for Disease Control, whatever the consequences for public health. The government’s refusal to be part of the EU’s ventilator procurement scheme in the early days of this pandemic, which was clearly for political reasons, suggests that ideology now trumps even public health.
I mourned when the UK officially left the EU on 31 January, and I will grieve again when the transition period ends. Not only for the wasted opportunities, but for the bridges which have been burned and the focus on what divides rather than unites us.
And one of the things I mourn for most of all is what we have denied to our children and grandchildren: the opportunity to live, love, work and travel freely across a whole continent.
Caroline Lucas is the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies