Tony Burke: The British trade union movement needs the help of trade unionists throughout the EU

In June last year the British people voted to leave the European Union.

All the UK Unions affiliated to IndustriALL supported and campaigned to remain in the EU.

We understood the implications for our members of a decision to leave the EU, notably in manufacturing and energy and we explained our views to members and the public.

Since that time we have heard arguments, particularly among the Right Wing media as to why leaving the EU would make little difference to the UK – and indeed some even argue leaving the EU would be beneficial to jobs, investment, trade and future employment.

They couldn’t be further from the truth.

Whilst the UK voted to leave the EU the people didn’t vote to crash and damage the economy or create massive uncertainty or to see their jobs destroyed.

President, there are many reasons why people voted to leave the EU but it has come down to the question of immigration and the free movement of labour.

During the referendum campaign the UK Unions argued that leaving the Single Market would be damaging, leaving the Customs Union would inflict massive problems on the economy, that investment decisions would be put on hold, that skilled workers from the EU would look to leave the UK, that worker’s rights would be damaged.

Many Trade Union comrades from across Europe have asked me and other colleagues has the UK taken leave of its senses?

Well unfortunately people did believe the leave campaign propaganda that immigration would be clamped down on, that money saved from not being a member of the EU could be spent on the National Health Service, that travelling across Europe and working in the EU would continue without any problems and that we didn’t need to rely on the EU to negotiate Trade Agreements – we could do it all ourselves and that countries would be queuing up to make Trade Agreements with us.

Unfortunately there are still those people who believe this. People say that having made the decision we should simply “get on with it”.

You will have seen statements from the Conservative Government Minister that the EU 27 would have no choice but to reach an agreement on the UK’s terms and that if they failed to do so, Mrs May said they would turn the UK into an “offshore low wage, low tax economy”.

The British people certainly didn’t vote for such stupidity.

Late last year Unite produced this booklet, “Brexit on our Terms”, which sets out our strategy for securing a Brexit that works for ordinary people.

I have to say that we have had significant demand for the booklet which has been well received, not just by our members but employers within the manufacturing sector.

What is remarkable is that there is a common view between the Trade Unions and the main Employers Federations in engineering, automotive, aerospace, chemicals and science, ceramics and glass and many others, that there are key issues on which we both agree and which the Government must heed.

These are: remaining members of the European Single Market.

Mrs May has indicated that the UK will leave the European Single Market and negotiate the “best possible deal”.

However the damage that tariffs of 10% on exports and even 4% on imports will do to the economy is massive.

Take for instance the automotive industry where our industry calculates that a 10% tariff would add £1500 to the cost of an exported car.

Multiply that by the number of cars exported from the UK over a six year life cycle and the figure is astronomical.

The employers and ourselves agree that the UK car industry which is highly successful, highly profitable with a highly skilled workforce could be damaged beyond repair.

Equally Mrs May has indicated that we will leave the Customs Union – again Unions and Employers Organisations recognise the importance of the Customs Union in retaining a “frictionless supply chain”.

Parts and components in particular for automotive, aerospace and defence and engineering travel back and forth across the Channel on numerous occasions.

Each time they cross the border there would have to be customs checks which will lead to delays which would ensure that our “frictionless supply chain” would be damaged but the Government seems oblivious to this point.

Many companies have already indicated to us that they are looking at investment decisions again and whilst we were pleased that the new Nissan models are to be built in Sunderland and we are campaigning strongly for other new cars and other technology to be manufactured here, there is concern about future investment and there is considerable uncertainty.

Companies do have options and they will take a decision based on what is good for their shareholders.

The Government has also said it will “grandfather” or transfer worker’s rights agreed in Europe into UK legislation in what is called “the great repeal bill”.

However we are aware that the Right Wing in the Conservative Party and in the media will be pressing for changes to employment rights which they have never agreed with, such as equal rights of ageing workers, the Working Time Regulations and parental leave.

On skills we are already seeing skilled workers returning to their EU countries rather than face growing uncertainty and we are aware from discussions with employers the number of skilled workers applying for jobs in the UK in manufacturing are drying up as workers decide to stay at home rather than face uncertainty – all of which will add up to a skills shortage in the UK.

Our other main concern is the question of Trade Agreements.

People like Boris Johnson have said it would be very easy to negotiate Trade Agreements with other countries or that membership of the WTO would take care of Trade Agreements.

This is farcical.

The UK has no experience of negotiating complex Trade Agreements and is busy trying to recruit Trade Negotiations to undertake this work.

We recognise there are over two hundred various agreements within the EU along which would need to be negotiated.

The Trade Agreement with Canada known as CETA took over seven years to negotiate and we have a Government who thinks we would be able to do all of this within two year.

They also forget there are twenty seven other countries whom will have their say on Brexit and sabre rattling and threatening to turn the UK into an offshore tax haven does not impress them.

Equally any arrangements in the WTO would have to be agreed with WTO member countries and it is misleading for the Government to suggest we can fall back on the WTO and everything would be OK.

So the idea of “no deal is better than a bad deal” is not an option – no deal will lead to an economic crash.

President, Unite has argued that we need a strong industrial strategy and unfortunately the Conservative’s industrial strategy is shot through, full of holes.

Once again it is a short term plan and doesn’t take into account issues such as the forthcoming digital revolution, long term investment and planning and even the good bits such as support for advanced manufacturing would crash and burn if the UK was faced with a Hard Brexit.

In the General Election tomorrow the UK population have a stark choice.

A Government committed to a Hard Brexit which would crash the economy with hard ideology such as controlling immigration and telling the rest of Europe how we wish to proceed with or without them, threatening not to reach agreement on any “divorce settlement” – or a Government that recognises the decision of the country but is intent to protect workers, protect jobs and protect investment and employment rights.

Nobody can predict how the vote will go tomorrow, however one thing is certain – the British Trade Union movement needs the help and support of fellow Trade Unionists throughout the EU and we know from our discussions that IndustriALL affiliates and affiliates to other European Trade Union Organisations, do understand and support us.

A version of this speech was made at the IndustriALL executive committee meeting in London on June 7.