Owen Tudor: What should Theresa May say in Florence?

Tomorrow, in Florence, the Prime Minister makes her much-anticipated speech on Brexit.

Boris Johnson has done his best to reopen Conservative divisions ahead of it, while claiming the party is “a nest of singing birds”. But the Cabinet look more like ferrets in a sack.

We fear that will encourage Theresa May to do what she’s done since the referendum: talk not to Europe, to the British people, or to workers – but to her own party base.

There’s at least some hope that she’ll put forward an opening offer for Britain’s financial settlement with the EU. If she’s finally ready to put things on the negotiating table, here are five priorities working people want to hear.

1. Protect good jobs and investment
Workplace reps tell us their employers are concerned that while the Cabinet is busy squabbling, we’re sleepwalking towards a cliff-edge Brexit. That would be bad news for Britain’s 2.5 million workers whose jobs directly depend on trade with the EU. If we lose tariff-free, barrier-free access to Europe’s economies, we risking losing many of those jobs.

To avoid a cliff-edge Brexit, she should agree to a transitional arrangement under which the current rules apply. This will give workers and businesses stability while we negotiate a long term deal.
The post-Brexit deal must also ensure goods can move easily, without tariffs or unnecessary bureaucracy. Staying in the single market would deliver that, but if she knows of a better way, she must tell us.

2. Defend working people’s rights
May promised to ‘protect and enhance’ the rights working people have won in the European Union. But her broken promises – no workers on boards, continuing fat cat pay and calling a snap election – leave us sceptical.

There’s a way she could ensure British workers never fall behind our European neighbours: stay in the single market. Our sovereign Parliament could still strengthen workplace rights, as the single market only requires a common floor.

If there’s another plan that would deliver the same guarantee for workers’ rights, again she must tell us. But instead we’re hearing calls from some businesses (and some of her own MPs) to ‘deregulate’ our rights – in other words, scrap them or erode them.

3. A fair deal for European workmates and Brits abroad
The uncertainty about the right to remain has gone on far too long. People who’ve lived and worked here for decades are fed up with the uncertainty, and Home Office letters telling them to pack up and go home. And Brits who work on the continent, or retired to the Med, are sick and tired of being used as negotiating pawns.

Tuscany, where May will be giving her speech, isn’t just a holiday destination. Many Brits work there. And many Tuscans live in London, Leeds or Glasgow, making a contribution and paying their taxes. Theresa May should take the opportunity to end their uncertainty. Her previous offer fell far too short, she must give them a full guarantee of their right to stay – no ifs, no buts.

4. No hard border for Northern Ireland or Gibraltar
May says she wants a deal that avoids hard borders in Northern Ireland and Gibraltar. Trade unions in Ireland and Spain think this is essential too. And it’s vital to preserve the peace achieved by the Good Friday Agreement.

But May has still not told us how this can be achieved if the UK leaves the customs union and the single market. And whatever the technology, different customs regimes and market rules will mean a much harder border than we have now.

5. No more red lines
Finally, there’s one thing we don’t want to hear – more red lines. Politicians like to sound tough when a bruising party conference is looming. But trade unions negotiate each and every day, and we know that the secret of success is to keep as many options on the table as possible.

So Prime Minister, make your speech less of a pitch to the warring camps in your party. Use it to make constructive suggestions for a Brexit that protects working people’s livelihoods and solves rather than adds to their problems.

Owen Tudor is Head of the TUC’s European Union and International Relations Department. This article first appeared on the TUC website. Copyright © 2017 Trades Union Congress.