With each movement of the little hand,
British Prime Minister Theresa May’s self-imposed deadline to deliver a
renegotiated Brexit deal before Parliament seems less likely—the UK government
doesn’t even expect any EU concessions by the deadline. And the palpable fear
of a no-deal withdrawal grows with each passing day.
In the coastal town of Sunderland,
meanwhile, autoworkers’ jobs—the primary source of employment for residents—are
on the chopping block. Nissan executives announced Sunday, Feb. 3 it was cancelling
its plan to make the X-Trail SUV in the UK. The auto plant, founded in 1984, is
Britain’s largest, and saved the town’s historic industrial roots after the
coal, mining, and shipbuilding industries collapsed. Employing over 7,000
people, and 28,000 supplier jobs, workers built and shipped out 442,000
vehicles from there in 2018.
“While we have taken this decision for
business reasons, the continued uncertainty around the UK’s future relationship
with the EU is not helping companies like ours to plan for the future,” Nissan
Europe Chairman Gianluca de Ficchy said in a statement.
A political setback for May and the
Conservative Party of course, but more important than politics, is the
continued realization that beyond rhetoric and talking points, boisterously
presented and upheld in the House of Commons, it’s working people who will be
on the receiving end of an economic blow due to political mishandling and
Like many American workers who were
swept up in the Trumpesque “political shakeup” of the status quo,
Sunderland—spurred on by fear of budget cuts, immigration concerns, and
hate-mongering politicians—voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union.
Today, workers at the plant are split
down the middle regarding Brexit’s next steps. And while their elected MPs
voted down May’s original agreement, a local news poll found residents wanted
to move forward with the EU divorce, regardless of impact.
In response to the disturbing update,
representatives from Britain and Ireland’s largest union, Unite, met with
Nissan managers pushing for long-term guarantees for their members.
“We pressed for guarantees on jobs and
future production levels at Sunderland and received firm assurances that the
future production of the Juke and Qashqai is unaffected, and this is solely an
X-Trail decision,” read a statement released shortly after the Monday, Feb. 4
meeting, referring to specific Nissan vehicle models. “What this whole sorry
saga shows is that the sector-wide uncertainty caused by Brexit urgently needs
to be addressed by ministers because it is draining the industry of skills,
investment, and new jobs.”
From the North Sea, where Sunderland
sits, Belfast, Northern Ireland is only 238 miles to the west. Belfast is where
the Prime Minister was, the day after union leaders met with Nissan, busy
affirming her “commitment to delivering a Brexit that ensures no return to a
hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.” As expected, her
efforts to ease tension and fear did not win over more support for a new
divorce agreement—support she desperately needs from her Northern Irish allies.
“It is welcome that the prime minister
is travelling to Brussels to seek changes, but she must stand strong by the
commitments she made to the House of Commons,” Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)
leader Arlene Foster said on Tuesday, Feb. 5. “That is her mandate, and that is
what I expect. The backstop would undermine the economic and constitutional
integrity of the United Kingdom… it is the main problem.”
The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) called
on the PM to introduce direct rule government for Northern Ireland if a deal
isn’t reached, and Sinn Fein, which supports the backstop provision, said May
lacked credibility and was “hostage to the DUP support” at Westminster. The
party called for a referendum on Irish unity.
“We have told her that the British
strategy of running down the clock and playing a game of chicken with Ireland
and Irish interests is profoundly unacceptable and wrong…. The days of Britain
dictating to Ireland or Irish people…those days are over and will not return,”
said Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou MacDonald.
The harshest criticism of UK
politicians though, came from former Polish PM, now EU president, Donald Tusk:
“I’ve been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who
promoted Brexit, without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely.”
His comments came a day before May was
due in Brussels to meet with EU leaders. On Thursday, they held strained talks
over the Irish border issue. As expected, EU leaders again rebuked May’s
proposed border compromise, but agreed to set a new deadline to try and break
the gridlock that threatens to push the UK crashing out of the union with no
Back in London, the same day, Labour
Party leader Jeremy Corbyn penned a letter to May offering a possible path to
get a Brexit deal through Parliament.
Corbyn offered Labour’s support if May
moved closer towards their position on several issues, including a UK-wide
customs union, close alignment with the EU’s single market and social
rights/standards, and “unambiguous agreements on the detail of future security
Much to May’s displeasure, Tusk made
the suggestion that Corbyn’s plan could indeed help bring about an acceptable
resolution. When asked for comment, a senior official said: “considerable
points of difference” remain between May and Corbyn, with the prime minister
still determined that the UK will not be in a customs union with the EU and
will pursue an ‘independent trade policy.’”
Corbyn’s plan carries some political
risk, and pro-EU Labour MPs were quick to highlight their concerns with his
letter, including fears it would prevent a second referendum from taking place.