Labour desperately needs a pro-EU vision – not just a plan to block no deal | Rafael Behr

Boris Johnson is not a skilful manager, except of expectations. He impressed dignitaries at the G7 summit in Biarritz with a capacity for seriousness that used to come as standard in prime ministers. Johnson sets the bar low, then clears it. He steered a traditional British diplomatic course between Europe and the US. His style is a flattering tribute to Donald Trump but on the substance – Russia, Iran, the climate emergency – the UK still sides with Germany and France. That balancing act will be harder outside the EU, and the messier the Brexit, the wobblier the tightrope.

Johnson needs a trade deal with Washington. It is the totem pole around which Tory Eurosceptics perform their frenzied anti-Brussels war dances. But Trump does not distinguish between commerce and state power. He will set the price of a deal at total loyalty in foreign affairs and surrender to US corporate interests. The UK must switch regulatory and strategic alignment from European to US standards, and thereby forfeit privileged access to the vast market on its doorstep. Few Brexiteers understand what that means in practice. The UK voice will be heard in Brussels from the wrong side of a closed door – and in Washington from the end of a tight leash. That is what a hard Brexit looks like once the bombastic rhetoric is stripped away. Theresa May worried that the price was too high; Johnson doesn’t care. This dramatic pivot in Britain’s global orientation is easily overlooked because the contrast in political style between the new prime minister and his predecessor is more conspicuous. May was ready to swallow the Northern Irish backstop because she was not horrified by the prospect of perpetual European alignment that it implied. For Johnson, ending that alignment is the whole point.

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Continental leaders perceive the shift better than many in Westminster. The debate in Britain is consumed by the question of whether a no-deal Brexit can be averted, which is understandable given the pain involved. MPs have poured energy into procedural innovation. Some dream of exotic coalitions, but a more feasible short-term fix, judging by the result of cross-party talks on Tuesday, is the erection of legislative crash barriers to stop the UK flying off a cliff on 31 October. That would be a remarkable achievement, considering the old tribal enmities that had to be overcome simply to convene a meeting in the Labour leader’s office. There is no doubt about the determination of opposition parties (and a handful of Tory rebels) to slay the no-deal dragon. The missing component is any suggestion of what UK-EU relations should look like if they succeed.

In Brussels the orderliness of the transition also matters. With Johnson in Downing Street, no deal and a last-minute deal are correctly understood to be rocky and smooth roads to the same destination. The UK has finally chosen from the menu of possible future relationships that Michel Barnier depicted back in 2017 as a staircase descending from membership, via Norway and Switzerland to WTO terms.

Boris Johnson

‘Boris Johnson needs a trade deal with Washington. It is the totem pole around which Tory Eurosceptics perform their frenzied anti-Brussels war dances.’ Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

It is to be a Canadian-style free trade deal. Talks to get there can begin promptly, on friendly terms if the UK accepts some kind of backstop for Northern Ireland and pays the money it owes to the EU budget. Otherwise there will be a pointless, messy, bitter interlude followed by much tougher negotiations.

Those are the options that Johnson has created for himself and either way the outcome is the same. The UK sets itself up as a vast tax haven and tries to poach investment away from its neighbours with low wages and lax regulators. Brussels, determined to avoid having such a piratical marketplace on its doorstep, demands “level playing field” provisions in any trade deal. The UK resists. Talks are bogged down for years, during which British living standards stagnate or decline. It is not a good model but, with a bit of spin, it is a concept that most Tories can rally around and sell in an election: the classic Eurosceptic myth of buccaneering Albion, sailing to liberty on the open Atlantic after decades of captivity in a grotty Belgian harbour.

What is the opposition’s alternative? Jeremy Corbyn positions himself as standard-bearer for resistance to a no-deal Brexit – but that is a rearguard action, not a forward march. The Labour leader’s primary goal is power, to which end he needs the support of pro-European MPs and remain voters in the country. Fear of upsetting that constituency has brought him to reluctant endorsement of a second referendum, but not yet to any declaration of enthusiasm for the EU. If Corbyn has a strategic concept of Britain’s place in the world today, he is not sharing it. His sparse forays into the technical side of Brexit are marked by hostility to Brussels rules on state aid and competition. If he ever found himself trying to negotiate a deal with that as a red line, he would encounter the same level playing field problem that makes Johnson’s deregulation fantasy hard to enact in practice.

Labour divisions over Europe can be hard to discern in the melee of factional vendetta and bickering over tactics. Corbynism itself contains an ideological tension over the EU. There is a moderate view that values the European project as a historic expression of international solidarity, and a hardline tendency that sees Brussels rules as an impediment to socialist autarky. Labour remainers see the EU as a way for many states to regulate global markets with clout that lone nations cannot muster. Radical left Eurosceptics think the whole enterprise is infested with profiteering capitalism.

Before he became leader, Corbyn’s instincts lay with the sceptics – and there is no reason to think they have changed. In the middle are MPs who were pro-European once, but too afraid of their pro-Brexit constituents to make the case.

Those cracks are papered with opposition to no deal. Being against the worst possible outcome allows the Labour leader to make hostile noises in the general direction of Brexit without opposing the thing itself. He raises his voice against Johnson’s way so no one can accuse him of complicity, but there is no Labour policy to save EU membership, nor any effort from the leader to argue that doing so might serve UK interests.

The Tories like to denounce Corbyn as a remainer and Labour’s pro-Europeans wish he would be one – so the opposition leader gets to hide in plain sight, as he has done since 2016. He talks around the subject without saying anything meaningful about it. He stands adjacent to the biggest strategic question facing the country for a generation without grabbing hold of it.

Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist


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