Beyond its practical benefits for Northern Ireland and the whole UK economy, Monday’s announcement of the Windsor Framework looked like a tentative return to grown-up government. While the Tories have a long history of U-turns, this could be the start of a new era in which the UK works smarter and more collaboratively with our closest neighbours.
If they’re serious about this new pragmatic approach, here are the next five steps they should take.
1.) Relax immigration rules to tackle labour shortages
Hopefully, the Brexit gag order in national politics has now been lifted. The first thing the government should do with this newfound openness is relax immigration rules to begin filling the 1.2 million vacancies in our economy.
The EU withdrawal inconveniently also withdrew some 330,000 workers from the UK. Three years on, nearly half of UK hospitality businesses have had to reduce operations after over 100,000 EU hospitality workers left the UK by summer 2022; the NHS has 4,000 fewer doctors due to Brexit; and the manufacturing industry is losing £7bn in output thanks to labour shortages. Businesses are feeling the strain acutely–the head of the CBI called for relaxed immigration rules.
Pragmatic leadership means listening to businesses and responding to their needs, not those of self-serving nativists. The UK has reopened rational political dialogue with the EU. The next step is reopening the door to the EU workers our economy needs.
2.) Renew Horizon Europe membership
Scientists rejoiced at Monday’s announcement that negotiations for the UK to rejoin the Horizon Europe research scheme as an associate member would restart.
But Sunak’s subsequent pooh-poohing of the programme reminded us that one press conference does not mean the Tories have kicked their habit of ignoring scientific advice. Perhaps Sage should tell him: being shut out of Horizon Europe has seriously damaged the UK’s previously-sterling reputation as a destination for scientific research.
It is disrupting scientific progress both at home and abroad and is likely spurring an exodus of top academics. Rejoining Horizon Europe will put our science sector back in concert with Europe’s top institutions, benefitting the entire world. The government must get it done without delay.
3.) Work with EU countries to establish safe routes to asylum
The government has already signalled that their next objective will be stopping dangerous small boat crossings in the Channel. This won’t happen if they stick to their old strategy of deflecting blame, whipping up dangerous hatred, and ignoring the reason small boat crossings have increased: the lack of safe routes to seek asylum in the UK, made worse by Brexit.
Reestablishing routes to asylum will require close cooperation with the EU and particularly its member states closest to us. Unlike the recent patrol-focused deal with the French government, a new strategy must recognise the right to seek asylum under international law, reject the past decade’s toxic hostility toward immigrants, and direct those whose cases are best suited to be processed in the UK to our shores.
4.) Make British culture European again
The UK is on the path to becoming the continent’s creative and cultural backwater if we remain shut out of reciprocal exchange opportunities in Europe.
45% fewer UK artists are touring at European festivals, nearly €200m of EU arts funding from Creative Europe has been lost, and the Government’s Turing scheme, which replaced Erasmus, robbed £22m in funding from British universities for a programme much more limited in scope.
The government should immediately work on reopening reciprocal short-term visa and customs schemes for creative industries, which the EU offered as part of the original Brexit deal (remember that?!) and the UK government rejected. Longer-term, the government should rejoin Europe’s creative and cultural communities–most of which, including Erasmus and Creative Europe, are not limited to EU members.
5.) Scrap the Retained EU Law Bill
After years of Brexiter posturing, this week marked a return to practical negotiation between the EU and the UK. The Retained EU Law Bill, conversely, epitomises the poison of before: it’s needlessly provocative, it shows contempt for international cooperation, and it places ideological point-scoring above the economy it purports to benefit.
Businesses have not asked for held-over EU regulations to be scrapped; contrarily, regulatory alignment with the EU where possible makes trade far easier and preserves our current high standards. And that’s before mentioning the potentially disastrous effects of the Bill, which could strip away consumer protections, safety rules, workers rights, and food and agricultural standards.
Jettisoning thousands of regulations just to stick it to the EU is the opposite of the certainty businesses have been clamouring for. The Government should continue their recent sensible streak and drop the Bill.
These steps won’t solve challenging global economic conditions, and they won’t magically reduce NHS waitlists or prevent teachers quitting in droves. But by enacting them, the Government can stop making these crises worse. Instead of antagonising the EU when we should be working together, they’ve started to recognise that ringing the neighbours’ doorbell and asking to borrow some eggs is much easier when you haven’t just egged their house. They’d do well to ignore the blustering blowhards and continue on this path.
Tommy Gillespie is press officer at Best for Britain