Jeremy Corbyn presses case for softer Brexit in Brussels

A broad, unstated EU consensus sees Labour’s plans as the only pathway to a deal

Labour's Brexit plan remains a credible and viable alternative to that of prime minister Theresa May, party leader Jeremy Corbyn insisted on Thursday.

That, he said, that had been "confirmed" by EU negotiators in Brussels on Thursday, a tacit nod by them to the broad, unstated consensus in Brussels that sees Labour's plans as the only pathway to a deal. The challenge is how to get them tabled in the negotiations.

Mr Corbyn's alternative Brexit plan involves UK membership of a customs union and alignment to the single market, as well as negotiations with the EU about the UK having a say in future EU trade deals. "Well, there would be a say in how one does the trade deals within the customs union, of course," he said, refusing to be drawn on whether EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier had indicated that such a prospect would run.

In the official Brexit talks – the resumed discussions in Brussels between the EU task force and, on the UK side, Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay and attorney general Geoffrey Cox – the Corbyn issues were certainly not on the agenda. The meeting discussed the backstop legal assurance issues flagged at Mrs May's discussion with commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday.


A statement from the Department for Exiting the EU on Thursday night reiterated the prime minister’s view “that the simplest way to get legally binding changes on the backstop is to reopen the withdrawal agreement. That remains the government’s position.”

But it also appeared to acknowledge both that this would not happen and to accept the withdrawal agreement’s language and meaning in admitting “that work would now focus on guarantees relating to the backstop that underline once again its temporary nature”.

The issues of “alternative arrangements” to the backstop – code for already-rejected technological solutions on the Border – and the amendment of the political declaration remained on the agenda, the statement said.

Sources said there had been no significant progress. Further meetings are scheduled for next week.

Second referendum

Mr Corbyn was speaking to journalists in Brussels after also meeting EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and commission secretary general Martyn Selmayr. He was accompanied by Labour's Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, and shadow justice secretary, Shami Chakrabarti.

And in a clear gesture to remainers in his fractured party, he softened a previously ambiguous attitude to a second referendum. Mr Corbyn said a second poll was one of the options that was "very much part of the agenda put forward by the Labour Party".

“We will put a motion to parliament, as I have already,” he said. “Keir Starmer and I have put a motion to parliament which included the option of a popular vote to confirm otherwise agreements that have been reached. That was rejected by parliament at that stage.”

Mr Corbyn said, "the danger of a no-deal exit from the European Union for Britain is a very serious and very present one. We from the Labour Party have made it very clear that we do not countenance a no-deal Brexit, with its danger to jobs and supply chains in the manufacturing industry as well as the food processing and many other industries.

“We put forward what we believe to be a credible process which would be to negotiate a customs union with the EU and alignment to ensure market access. We are strongly of the belief that these proposals are credible. That has been confirmed by our meetings today.”

Reckless no-deal

Following a Corbyn meeting with MEPs later, the parliament's Brexit chief, Guy Verhofstadt, said "we repeated our plea for a strong and stable majority in the UK parliament for any withdrawal agreement and our belief that this can only be achieved with a cross-party approach".

“There was a consensus that a reckless no-deal should be taken off the table. The Brexit outcome now depends largely on whether Britain’s political leaders can put co-operation and the national interest before adversarial partisanship.”

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth is former Europe editor of The Irish Times