Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement lies in tatters. Comprehensively rejected by Parliament, it only clings to life by the thinnest of threads – a possible renegotiation over the “backstop” that the EU has repeatedly refused to countenance and which the Prime Minister herself, until recently, told us was impossible.
As a result, we teeter on the edge of a catastrophic no-deal Brexit.
And make no mistake, falling out of the EU without an agreement, a transition or a workable plan would be a disaster for our country and for public services. But that doesn’t mean the withdrawal agreement is a good idea either – quite the opposite.
In recent weeks some have suggested all that’s wrong with either the withdrawal agreement – or even no-deal Brexit – is a lack of protection for rights at work. They couldn’t be further from the truth.
Because while defending hard-won workplace rights (and ensuring UK employees continue to enjoy at least the same protection as those in the EU) is critical, it’s missing the point to believe this is the only issue. It’s just one of the vast number of problems that need to be resolved.
Simply put, if Brexit isn’t handled very carefully – with safeguards that neither the PM nor her extremist backbenchers seem to favour – it will be a catastrophe for our economy, for jobs, for wages and for public services.
Take the concerning news that emerged over the weekend as car manufacturer Nissan announced it no longer plans to build its X-Trail model in Sunderland. On the surface, that development doesn’t have an impact on the kind of jobs held by UNISON members, although of course it’s devastating for the workers affected.
Except on closer inspection it does. It won’t just be Nissan workers who are hit by a badly handled Brexit or ongoing uncertainty. It’s the local community and other local businesses. As a result, we could see higher unemployment, lower tax returns and less money for public services – an accelerating cycle of decline.
But none of this is rocket science. We need a Brexit that defends jobs. All jobs. That’s because without decent work and wages there won’t be the tax receipts to pay for public services. Workers’ rights are vital, but so are workers’ jobs.
And of course, it’s essential that a hard border is avoided. UNISON was actively involved in the peace process in Northern Ireland and remains completely, and unswervingly, dedicated to it. A hard border puts hard won safety and security at risk. It puts lives at risk. But it also puts jobs, communities and public services at risk. Any solution that involves a hard border is a non-starter.
Yet both a hard border and the much-discussed but little-understood “backstop” can be avoided, if the government is willing. UNISON has called – publicly and in meetings with the government – for a permanent customs union with the EU. This would allow the UK to continue as a proud trading nation, afford our economy some protection, avoid a dangerous hard border and help protect public services.
So far, that call – a sensible approach that delivers the Brexit people voted for without the chaos they didn’t – has been ignored. But there is still time left to find a way through that avoids calamity. As important as workers’ rights are, there’s more that needs fixing on Brexit than just these – and you can take my word for that, as someone who has spent decades fighting for and defending rights at work, both at home and abroad.
Dave Prentis is the General Secretary of public service union UNISON