Throughout the Brexit process the formal negotiations have been accompanied by a rhetorical to and fro between London and Brussels that has often generated headlines, but rarely shed any light the serious questions facing the country. In a crowded field, Michael Howard threatening war with Spain over Gibraltar stands out as a classic of the genre.
But there is one exchange that actually encapsulates quite a lot about how the last year has gone. It came in July when Boris Johnson declared that the EU could ‘go whistle’ over the so-called ‘divorce bill’. The response from EU negotiator Michel Barnier was that he could not hear any whistling, “just a clock ticking”.
With exactly one year to go until the UK is due to formally leave the EU, the sound of that clock ticking should be ringing loud in the ears of the negotiating teams on both sides of the channel. Time is running out to resolve the looming questions posed by Brexit, and in many areas we are no closer to having clear answers than we were at the start of this process.
That is why Prospect are asking for urgent answers from the government on five key questions that they have so far failed to provide any real clarity on.
How will you make sure the UK has access to the best skills from across Europe?
The government constantly say that they want a migration system that “continues to attract those who benefit us economically, socially and culturally”, but we are no closer to knowing what that means in practice than we were at the start of the process. We need reassurances that new migration controls will not prevent talented UK and EU citizens from moving across borders to work and live.
How will you maintain the science collaboration that has made UK science such a success?
Science is an inherently collaborative enterprise, which is why it is vital that the UK maintains close relationships with EU institutions and work programmes after we leave. The government talks about “a far-reaching science and innovation agreement” but have not made clear what such an agreement would include.. What price UK participation in Framework Programme 9 and when will the negotiations on a new science pact actually get underway?
How will you replicate the benefits of EU agencies such as Euratom and the EASA?
The UK’s membership of various EU agencies has been hugely beneficial to jobs, standards and the economy. Now the government plans to pull out of some of these agencies (such as Euratom) and to try to keep us in others (such as the European Aviation Safety Agency). We need clarity on what model of membership the UK is seeking, and how it plans to replicate the benefits of those agencies that we are leaving. Prospect is clear that we should not be withdrawing from sensible agreements on purely ideological grounds, and that under no circumstances should we leave an agency without full assurance that those arrangements can be replaced.
How will you make sure the civil service have the resources to handle the extra responsibilities they will have after Brexit?
‘Taking back control’ means a lot of things, one of which is that UK taking over regulatory supervision of many activities normally done at the EU level. In areas as diverse as plant importation and nuclear safety, the UK civil service will be expected to undertake a huge amount of work. All of this comes at a time when civil service capacity has been reduced by years of austerity. The government needs to explain how it plans to fund the extra staff and resources needed to undertake this work so civil servants can plan properly for the future.
How will you protect workers’ rights so that there is no relaxation of standards once we leave the social chapter?
Many of the worker’s rights that we take for granted are underpinned by EU law through the Social Chapter. With some in the government saying that the government should use Brexit as an opportunity to ‘cut red tape’ and reduce rights at work, it is essential that the government sets out how the UK plans to maintain and build on our workplace protections and ensure we do not fall behind the rest of Europe. As it stands there is a huge risk that use of so-called Henry VIII powers could wipe out existing law without effective Parliamentary scrutiny.