In a significant shift of policy that creates a clear dividing line between Britain’s two main political parties, Labour has announced that it wants to keep Britain in the European single market and customs union during a lengthy transitional period ahead of Brexit. The party said this would provide the country and its people and businesses with “maximum certainty and stability”.
This policy would involve Britain maintaining freedom of movement with the rest of the European Union (EU) — and in all likelihood require it to not negotiate free trade deals with other countries (including India) — as well as accepting the jurisdiction of European courts during the transition period, providing Britain with “a credible solution to one of the most important issues facing Britain’s exit from the EU”.
The announcement, made by Labour’s Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit Secretary in an article in The Observer newspaper on Sunday, will deal with some of the recent criticism of the Labour party: that it lacked a clear coherent position on single market and customs union membership, and that it had failed to draw a clear dividing line between its policy on Brexit and that of the Conservatives.
The announcement pegs it as the party of what has come to be known as “soft Brexit” versus the stronger stance of the Conservatives, which has come to be known as “hard” Brexit. Earlier this month, the government made clear that it planned to end customs union membership in March 2019, the end of the two-year deadline for Brexit negotiations, as well as freedom of movement, arguing that “taking back control” of laws and borders were two of the key takeaways from the referendum.
However, Mr. Starmer said that Labour’s position would have a number of advantages, not only giving businesses stability and certainty but safeguarding social protections and rights, as well as giving more time to resolve the complex issues around the Northern Ireland border with Ireland.
However, with growing concerns being expressed in recent weeks about the lack of clarity and certainty from the government, particularly from business (the Brexit Secretary David Davis recently raised eyebrows for defending the inevitability of “constructive ambiguity” in the negotiations”), the Labour clarification, will come as a welcome development to many.
Figures published last week had highlighted a sharp rise in EU nationals leaving Britain. This, a leading business organisation CBI warned, was leading to a “loss of vital skills” from the country.
The reversal will put the parties on course for a heated debate when MPs return to the House of Commons from the summer recess to consider the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. While Labour has to date supported the government’s stance on many issues, accepting that Brexit had to be delivered on, the change in stance could mean the Conservative government could potentially risk defeat, particularly given the sizeable number of MPs within its own party who oppose a hard Brexit.
“If Labour supports being in the single market and an amendment is accepted to that effect very few Tory rebels needed,” tweeted a former senior advisor to ex-Prime Minister David Cameron. The development is also likely to increase pressure on the party to support single market and customs union membership on a more enduring basis.