54. Kicking at an open goal and missing

Peter Burke
Chair
Oxford For Europe

18 January 2021

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“What is happening is that the government is tackling this issue, dealing with it as quickly as possible, and the key thing is we’ve got our fish back. They’re now British fish and they’re better and happier fish for it.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg

We wanted to have reciprocal right for musicians to tour, but before everybody worries about this I should just stress that what we have is the right for musicians to play in other European, in EU countries, for 90 out of 180 days.
Boris Johnson speaking to Commons Liaison Committee.

“Whether we like it or not, that is going to be the treaty that an incoming Labour government inherits and has to make work. And it is not being straight with the British public to say we can come into office in 2024 and operate some other treaty”
Keir Starmer

It is better than being kicked in the face or mugged in an alleyway… but compared to EU membership it’s a pathetic little nothing.
Prof Michael Dougan on the Deal


Both fisheries and work permits for musicians are a very small part of the horrendous unfolding Brexit drama. However, they are significant because they are good examples of how gravely a massive cross section of ordinary people have been let down by this government.

The fishing industry is currently facing its greatest existential crisis ever. With deliveries of fresh produce to the EU taking several days because of red tape, the contents of lorries arrive at their destination fit for nothing but landfill. This is money from the mouths of the very people on whose behalf the government claimed it was negotiating diligently until the very last minute. To say they feel betrayed is to put it very mildly.

When challenged by Ian Blackford at Prime Minister’s Questions this week, all BJ could say was that £100 million was earmarked to help rescue the fishing industry. They are not asking for handouts, what they want is to be allowed to trade as they did before. Sadly, that will never happen. This is not a temporary teething problem, it is the new normal. With dockside fish prices collapsing by 80%, the industry is in effect unviable and the government has promised nothing which is going to change that. Even if it were a matter of teething problems, the government could give no assurance that they will be resolved in time to save all but the largest stakeholders. Unless, of course, the UK consumer overnight develops a massive liking for langoustines and mackerel.

Rees-Mogg

It beggars believe that at a time like this Jacob Rees-Mogg could treat fisheries as a joke. Was he actually trying deliberately to alienate fisherman by what he said? Is he being forced to resign because of the sheer callousness of his response? Or is his boss Boris Johnson joining in the joke? Have a guess.

This, by the way, is the same Rees-Mogg who chose this moment to end the work of the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union, so there is no new parliamentary forum for scrutiny of a complex process which is really only beginning. And remember all of this is being done in the name of greater sovereignty for the UK Parliament. Could there be a greater irony?


And as for the music industry, again this was an unexpected problem. It is now in effect impossible for performers (or indeed anybody else), to cross the channel in either direction and earn money without a special work permit, which is prohibitively expensive (except at the discretion of the host country). While the Prime Minister is technically correct in what he said to the liaison committee, what it boils down to is that any musician can travel to the EU as a holiday maker and perform, provided they do so free of charge. That will come as scant consolation. Was BJ deliberately misleading the public or was he really so ignorant about the treaty he had just signed?

It has now emerged that this particular gap in the treaty was at the UK government’s request, because it saw EU musicians coming to the UK as an expression of freedom of movement. Having initially denied this, they have now admitted it. How many orchestras and performers, even after the end of Covid, will no longer be able to make ends meet? The case has been made very clearly by Oxford’s own Dillie Keane: “Britain’s cultural exports have been one of our greatest successes for decades. However, cost & sheer administrative impact of varying entry requirements for personnel, equipment and vehicles in each country within the EU will be prohibitive to the majority of live musicians”. A petition on this issue has already exceeded 250,000 signatures.

Dillie Keane

There are so many other aspects of this agreement that will penalise ordinary people on both sides of the channel. The latest estimate is not only a 4 to 6% drop in GDP, but a 30% drop in trade with the EU and a 13% drop in UK trade overall , relative to what would have happened had we continued in the EU. Obviously no amount of trade with the USA or other far flung countries will come anywhere near making up the shortfall. The City of London has been thrown under the bus. All this together with loss of individual opportunities and cultural links, and the enmity of all our nearest neighbours.


When faced with a government which has been both incompetent and devious in its dealings, the question arises why any member of the public should trust them. It is perhaps not surprising that Covid-related restrictions are respected much less than during the first lockdown.

Equally perhaps it is not surprising that the Telegraph is filling with excuses from Brexiters who claim it is not the fault of Brexit but merely a matter of how it was done. These are the same people who cried ‘Project Fear’ at every opportunity before the truth was obvious to all. Do you believe them? If so, I have these magic beans I can sell you…

At a time like this, just when the profound harm done by Brexit is becoming apparent, the government is leaving an open goal for all the opposition parties. It feels as if Labour, for one, is not even making a serious attempt to kick at this goal. Keir Starmer, last week, on the Andrew Marr Show, appeared to rule out making significant changes to the treaty on coming to power in 3-4 years’ time. He also appeared to drop the policy, expressed in Labour’s 2019 manifesto, of restoring freedom of movement. In the first prime minister’s Question Time after Brexit started to bite, he asked not a single question about this important issue. At this week’s Fabian Society conference he again failed to make any firm commitment on Europe. And whenever he is accused by BJ of being an ‘unrepentent remainer’ he squirms in discomfort rather than wearing it as a badge of pride.

Keir Starmer on Andrew Marr

Obviously he would say in his defence that the coronavirus crisis takes precedence over Brexit. However by focusing solely on that he is giving the impression of being willing to collude with the government in using coronavirus as a smokescreen for what Brexit is doing to the country. For an opposition this is not good enough.

Many commentators who are in a position to know defend him by saying that Brexit has happened and is outside Labour’s control. By the time they come to government, if they do, it will be well bedded in. The party’s focus at the moment is on not forfeiting the voters, such as those in the Red Wall seats, who moved across to the Tories because they wanted to ‘see Brexit done’. And pro-Brexit voters are perceived as being vastly more flaky than pro-Europeans. This despite the fact that the latter represent the vast majority of Labour supporters and almost all surviving Labour MPs, since the merciful departure of people like Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart.

Others would argue, and I agree with them, that this is a misguided view. It is not true that pro Europeans have nowhere else to go. In order to make this obvious we need a strong and attractive Liberal Democrat Party with good pro European credentials. Ed Davey, though, to his great discredit, declining to call the LibDems a rejoin party, has at least committed to a return of freedom of movement. Labour should not take its pro-European supporters for granted, it still has to earn their respect.

Both parties are shown up by the SNP, which is making the most articulate and vociferous pro-European case. Ian Blackford has been relentless in pointing out the problems created for his country and the fact that this government, even if it tried, could not do more to alienate Scottish voters. There is even a theory that this is BJ’s intention and that he would not mourn the loss of Scotland to the union. It is entirely possible that by the time of the next election in 2024 there will no longer be any SNP presence at Westminster. Many of us would miss them. And of course Scottish independence would in all likelihood copperfasten Tory rule, in spite of the party’s appalling track record.

At a time like this, the English opposition parties would do well to think how the electoral landscape will have changed by 2024. It will be obvious that the government promise to “get Brexit done” was fraudulent. The country will still be mired in difficult negotiations with the European Union. The ability to travel and trade with European countries will have affected many more voters and their jobs and quality of life. The folly of Brexit will be apparent. In spite of the propaganda of the right wing press, and in spite of the attempts to blame the EU, many of the pro Brexit voters Labour is currently trying to court would have ceased to be that. The trend of disillusionment, already well established, can only accelerate. Labour needs to be able to recapture them on the rebound from their voyage of delusion. If Labour is seen to be complicit in Brexit that will be difficult.

It is much too soon for Labour to talk about a policy of rejoining. However, it seems obvious that to rule it out, or even to refuse to consider renegotiation of the treaty when that falls due in five years’ time, would be a mistake of epic proportions. Meanwhile, there is nothing to stop Labour from taking the initiative on practical tweaks to deal with the current crisis. Perhaps service industries are where most needs to be done. And then there is agriculture, work permits, Erasmus and recognition of professional qualifications etc etc.  David Henig has articulated some realistic short to medium term goals.

At a time like this we need constructive engagement, not acquiescence. The country needs an effective opposition, and there is much to oppose.

The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe

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