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UK’s Labour Party shifts gear on Brexit

Vidya Ram London | Updated on February 26, 2018

Party chief Jeremy Corbyn backs remaining in customs union even after exit from EU

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the UK’s Opposition Labour Party, has sought to set the party apart from the government on Brexit, after saying his “internationalist” party would want to negotiate a new “comprehensive” customs union with the European Union, although only if certain conditions were met, such as Britain being given a say over future trade deals struck with the EU.

The shift in Labour policy comes following an intense campaign by sections within for the party to adopt a more radical stance on the issue, distinct from the government, and enable it to deal with apparently intractable issues such as how to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Divided party

Like the Conservatives, Labour has struggled to present a united front — while some constituencies, particularly in the north, voted heavily to leave the EU, others, such as inner London constituencies, voted heavily to remain. In a widely anticipated speech, that will pile pressure on the Conservative Party — currently divided about the best route ahead for Brexit — Corbyn lambasted the government for keeping the country in the dark, 20 months on from the referendum, describing Labour as the party of “common sense”.

While Labour respected the results of the referendum, the party’s priority was getting the best deal for all communities and regions of the country. “We reject any race to the bottom,” he insisted, contrasting it with the Conservatives’ approach, which he said would, with its focus on deregulation, put “jobs and living standards at risk.”

He highlighted the government’s hopes for trade deals with the US and China (not mentioning India) arguing that with “weaker standards and regulations” in both countries, trade deals could risk dragging Britain into a race to the bottom, in terms of vital protections.

‘Full access to Europe’

Highlighting the example of the car industry — which has been vocal in expressing its concerns over what exiting the customs union and the end of frictionless and tariff-free trade could mean, he said it made “no sense” to leave Europe’s regulatory agencies and tariff-free area. “Labour seeks a final deal that gives full access to the European market and to the customs union.” However, he placed conditions on the deal, which he said would be in the interests of both the EU and the UK, and that Britain would not countenance being a “passive recipient of rules.”

‘Internationalist traditions’

In a move likely to rile those on the right, Corbyn also sought to reject the government’s stance on immigration, arguing the party stood for the “best internationalist” traditions of the Labour movement, and that there should be no “rigid lines” on immigration. Harking back to a now controversial statement by PM Theresa May that one of the lessons to be taken from the Brexit vote was that ‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere,” he told the audience gathered in the city of Coventry that Britain could only fully achieve what it wanted to if it recognised that “we are citizens of the world.” Clarifying his stance on the EU, he said that while he had been critical of the EU, this should not be mistaken for being anti-EU. “I want close, progressive cooperation with the whole of Europe.”

Corbyn’s speech comes ahead of another major speech by May at which she is expected to clarify the party’s position on Brexit going forward, amid deep divisions within the party. Officially, the government remains committed to exiting the customs union — the system under which the EU operates as a single trading bloc, with common external tariffs and customs barriers, and must negotiate joint trade deals with non-EU States.

However, last week, May and members of her Cabinet met in an attempt to resolve internal differences. While some such as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson favour a ‘hard’ Brexit and a complete break with the EU, others such as Chancellor Philip Hammond believe a preferable option would maintain much of the existing relationship.

“Tories gifted Corbyn an open goal on the customs union, and he just put the ball in,” said George Osborne, the former Chancellor who resigned following the Brexit referendum and now edits London’s free newspaper, The Evening Standard.

Alongside industry — which has been vocal in expressing its concerns over what an exit from the customs union would mean — the issue presents major challenges for the future of Northern Ireland: should Britain, and Northern Ireland, leave the union, a customs border would have to be put in place with Republic of Ireland, which many believe could jeopardise the fragile peace process.

While Corbyn’s shift is likely to be welcomed by many MPs within his party, who have been pressing for such a move, the conditions he proposes leave his party open to criticism from the EU, which has all along stressed that there could be no cherry-picking of conditions.

’Colony of EU’

The government swiftly condemned his speech, with Johnson warning Corbyn’s proposal would leave Britain a “colony of the EU unable to take back control of our borders or our trade policy.” However, others including the Scottish National Party, and some senior Labour figures, argued the party needed to go further and push for Britain to remain in the single market. “Staying in the single market is the next logical step. It’s the only realistic way to protect large chunks of our services sector and deal with non-tariff barriers to all UK-EU trade,” said Labour MP Heidi Alexander.

Published on February 26, 2018

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